Learning to Swim


It’s likely that by now you have the picture (Why Can’t We Just Let It Be). Me, on the beach, surrounded by a load of people, all of us excited about watching newly hatched turtles make their treacherous trek to the ocean. Lots of awe and delight ensue. Mostly.

Mostly, because I’m an Enneagram 8. This may not mean anything to you, so let me explain. The Enneagram is a complex and amazing system through which we can gain insight into how we see the world, and, perhaps more importantly, how we react to it. It is a tool that explains motivation more than behavior. It offers opportunity for growth away from our natural instinctual responses toward something more whole. It invites us to the kind of homecoming you find when you discover freedom. Today’s story is a real-life example of how this tool works… read on, I’ll show you.

As an Enneagram 8, I love the underdog.

I learned to see the world as a relatively harsh place where the powerless are taken advantage of, the weak are hurt and, often, destroyed. How I developed this worldview, as well as how you developed yours, is a mystery for which the Enneagram offers incredible insight. In my case, I learned early on that in order to survive, I needed to be strong, confident, and all things that are the opposite of soft and vulnerable. Eights get through childhood by exercising the belief that vulnerability gets you hurt every time and must be avoided at all costs. One upside to this worldview is that we Eights have a natural tendency toward protecting anyone or anything that we determine might need protecting. And on this day, that thing was a bale of turtles (and yes I had to look that up. A bale of turtles. Who knew?).

While it is true that I probably could have controlled my outrage at the insensitive, arrogant interference I saw on that beach (you may have noticed the judge-ness there - we eights are great at that under stress), I didn’t take a moment to consider a different response. I knew that the flash of the cameras could render the tiny turtles disoriented and unable to find the water. I knew that touching them could be harmful for that same reason and many more. And I knew that all of these people getting in the way of what I saw as the natural order of Creation had left me feeling a little cheated and very angry.

So I responded the way Eights typically do -

without any thought or reflection.

I got mad, I got loud, and I took over in an attempt to stick up for these poor baby turtles who were just trying to do their thing. After one woman refused to quit taking flash pictures despite being repeatedly asked to, I stepped in and corrected her: “You can’t use your flash. You’ll disorient them.”

Unfortunately, I cannot convey the hot energy with which these simple words were spoken or the deep sarcasm of her response.

“Who are you, the turtle lady,” she asked.

My response: “Today I am,” pairing my curt reply with a glare containing the heat of a thousand suns. She put her phone down and walked away.

It wasn’t just the “ignorant” adults who experienced my heat that evening. I approached a ten year-old just as he was bending down to pick up a turtle and I let him have it.

“Do not touch that turtle!”

I’m not sure if he was more startled by me or by his mother, who standing a few feet behind him, threw him under the bus.

“That’s what I told him,” she said. “He just doesn’t listen.” As is customary when I get in defender mode, he listened to me.

And therein lies the rub.

When I get my 8 on, people listen.

They do what I want them to do, sometimes without my even having to say it. I can get a large group of people on board with a mission or a large group of folks on the beach content with just watching and getting out of the way. By the time dusk turned to full sunset, the message on the beach was loud and clear. You can look, but do not touch. I wasn’t the only one spreading that memo, but I might have been the loudest. Some people championed my effort, thanked me for sticking up for those poor little turtles and bringing some calm to the situation. But as is often the case, not everyone patted me on the back.

My wife being one of those who refrained from the back-patting.

When I throw my big energy around like that it makes her uncomfortable. If you know her, you won’t be surprised. She appreciates a scapel while I too often prefer a bomb. She is the first one to walk away and create some distance when I get in this space. And she has good reason. She’s been injured by the shrapnel of my explosiveness more than once.

The good news here - besides the fact that I might have saved a turtle or two - is that I know this about myself.. But, as this story reveals,

my intellectual understanding doesn’t always translate to more relational, or even rational, behavior.

Often, it does though.. certainly more often than it used to. When something pokes at my own vulnerability (like those damn turtles) I can over-respond, instinctually and without thinking, in ways I not only don’t like, but that are sometimes downright harmful. Turns out that all that over-reacting is just a defense mechanism to keep my own vulnerability out of my consciousness. Because as the Enneagram has taught me, Eights not only don’t like vulnerability, we prefer to deny it exists in us at all.

Here’s more good news. Turns out that underneath all of my tough exterior is a big, squishy, lover. Yep, I said it. Soft. Vulnerable. Tender. I don’t even twitch when I admit it anymore. I’ve been blessed by what the Enneagram has taught me about myself. Now I know when I feel that energy rise in my gut that it signals that I feel vulnerable, and with that realization, I have freedom. I am free to choose to react the way my instincts indicate or I can choose to respond with love, gentleness, forgiveness, and openness. And what I totally forgot in the heat of the moment on that beach is that there is a middle way, bringing a little bit of both.

Who knew? For most of my adult life I didn’t. I thought how I moved in the world was just me being me.

Turns out that was only me being the scared version of me.

Imagine all this insight from a “silly” personality system. But the power of that insight has truly helped me learn to swim the ocean of my life completely differently. Just ask my wife.

becky davidComment