When You’re Not Waving but Drowning

When I was in high school, I had a wonderful creative writing class in which I first encountered a poem entitled “Not Waving but Drowning” by British poet Stevie Smith:


Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.


Poor chap, he always loved larking
And now he’s dead
It must have been too cold for him his heart gave way,
They said.


Oh, no no no, it was too cold always
(Still the dead one lay moaning)
I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning.


Before continuing on, let’s pause for a moment. What thoughts and feelings come up for you as read the poem? Where does the poem take you within yourself?


“Not Waving but Drowning” is the most popular and well-known of Stevie Smith’s work for a good reason, as the trenchant feelings of sadness and isolation that the poem describes are familiar to so many. We can empathize with the dead man, as we have often been in the icy, menacing grip of loneliness ourselves. Most of us have been “much too far out” and have struggled to swim amidst feelings that we feel will surely overwhelm us.


The great calamity that the poem speaks to is the haunting isolation that we experience when we’re too far out and no one notices. We survive our pain, hiding it as we always have, perhaps by larking or fooling around, like the dead man in the poem. Often without being aware of it, what we feel is out of sync with what we do, how we present ourselves, the thoughts we share. Whatever the pain is, we’ve learned to expect that no one will get it, that it will only disrupt or destroy relationships we really need. Much of the pain is so intolerable that it’s banished from our awareness, and the pain we do feel we dare not talk about. So even those we care about may think we’re waving when instead we’re suffering silently. The deadness we feel is heavy, unbearable.


If you feel like you’re drowning or you know someone who is, there is hope. Through the unique power of human understanding, feelings that are so frightening and unbearable can be known, experienced, and borne. Their powerful grip can be loosened, allowing them to be integrated into the rich tapestry of your feelings and experiences. The fear that once governed the pain, that entrenched you in loneliness can diminish with time, so that you can live your life with more freedom and agency.


If you’re reading this, then perhaps you’re considering therapy as a possible approach to your current concerns. Whatever approach you choose, I invite you to take the first step of that journey and let someone know that you’re not waving but drowning.

Jeremy Mast

Jeremy is a licensed marriage and family therapist (CA LMFT90961) in private practice in Ventura, California. He helps those struggling with drugs, alcohol, and out-of-control sexual behaviors awaken to new possibilities for their lives. He lives with his wife, son, and cat in beautiful southern California.

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