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Shuffle Your Feet

One of my favorite father-son traditions was the annual trip to southern California my son and I took every summer. Living in Utah, it’s always nice to get back to the stomping grounds of my childhood in Huntington Beach, and get into the surf for that annual rejuvenation. There’s just something kind of magical for me down there – the sand, the ocean air, the waves. It brings back many amazing memories of my more active and youthful surfing days up and down the Orange County coast.

I grew up surfing, but I refrain to call myself a surfer, because to me, there’s a level of dedication and skill that makes one eligible for that title. I became pretty good by my late teens, but certainly didn’t grab the attention of photographers or sponsors, which was alright with me. I surfed simply because I loved it. And I still do, which is why I try to return every year (although admittedly, I get worse and worse, and often revert back to body boarding after just a few waves on the surfboard).

One of the “tricks of the trade” I learned growing up is how to protect myself from the nasty barb of a stingray as you walk through the surf. Stingrays settle into the sandy bottom of the shallow water, and don’t like to be disturbed. If you happen to step on top of one, it instinctively goes into protection mode, quickly whipping its barbed tail toward its “attacker” – usually your foot. Instantly, the needle-like barb, along with its toxins, synergize together creating intense pain, not to mention the eerie recognition that something lurking below just made its presence known with a vengeance. So, to avoid stepping on them, the trick is to shuffle your feet when you walk through the surf. Shuffling disturbs the sand and bothers the stingray with enough warning to swim away and settle in to a new location. It seems to work I suppose. In all my days of surfing, I’d never been stung.

I was concerned that the inexperience of my son and his cousins that came with us might lead to inadvertently feeling the stingray wrath, so I hammered it into their heads: “Shuffle your feet!” Every time we went into the water, the warning was sounded: “Shuffle your feet!” And whether it was the feet shuffling, or just lucky avoidance, none of us got stung.

Until the last day.

Wanting to take advantage of one more opportunity, I got up early that Friday morning to catch a few more waves. The guys were pretty tired, and not nearly as enthusiastic as I was about it, so I went out alone. After zipping up the wetsuit and strapping on the surfboard leash, I began to make my way through the surf to begin paddling out into the line-up. But just before hopping onto the board to begin paddling - ZAP! - I felt an excruciating sting on the outside of my right heel. After a couple of seconds, I painfully realized that I had failed to shuffle my feet, and I was experiencing the intense consequences. I turned around, and hobbled toward the beach while my foot and now the bottom half of my leg throbbed. Being alone didn’t help, but through the pain I managed to pack up and head back to the house.

In addition to the physical pain, I also came to a powerful and disappointing realization: I had failed to heed my own warnings.

That experience has caused me to reflect on my life with a broader scope. Are there other areas where I get stuck in “do as I say, not as I do” patterns? Do I sometimes take that approach with my children in other situations? Is that a pattern I notice with my clients? Do I warn them and teach them strategies to stay safe and happy, but fail to live them myself? In some areas, the answer was a sobering, “yes.”

How about you? Do you recognize these patterns in your life? Is there any element of “do as I say, not as I do” in your parenting or other interpersonal interactions? What are some of your experiences?

For me, that stingray provided a powerful wake-up call. I often reflect on the day I didn’t “shuffle my feet”- whether I’m counseling others, in my approach to parenting, or when I’m just dealing with the struggles of life. And it reminds me to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. So, my suggestion – to you and to me – is to figuratively “shuffle your feet.” As we lead by example, we will undoubtedly avoid the stinging barbs that poor decisions can bring, not only for ourselves, but for those we care about most.

Still shuffling,


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