What We Can Learn from the Tides by Connie Milligan, LCSW

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What We Can Learn from the Tides by Connie Milligan, LCSW

We’ve been with friends on Edisto Island, in the back waters of the lowcountry area of South Carolina. Our friends will tell you, they live by the tides.

The tidal marshes behind the Atlantic Ocean are a world of their own, with a complex eco structure of salt water creeks and grasses that stretches between the charming southern towns of Charleston and Savannah. It’s home to a plethora of aquatic birds like cranes, osprey, herons, gulls, pelicans, and storks who grace the distinctive watery landscape with their swooping and calls, feasting in the waters and grasses teaming with shrimp, crabs, clams, oysters and fish.

It’s here that the tides have created a distinct landscape and a lifestyle that is well defined by its lowcountry food and the romance of its ebb and flow. It’s in the extremes created by the tides that we can learn essential lessons of life.

While contemplating this, I remembered that this lowcountry area was also home to Pat Conroy, the great southern writer who died in March of this year. He captured the family dysfunction and drama that is infamous in southern literature in his acclaimed books and movies, The Great Santini and Prince of Tides. There is a theme in his work that I think is also echoed by the landscapethat there’s a redemptive nature to life’s extremes.

Let me explore this idea with you – extremes offer valuable lessons and opportunities for change.


The tides change every 6 and a half hours. This means that high and low tide each occur twice a day at different times with a “slack tide” of about 5 minutes between when the high or low tide switches directions. People have clocks and apps that help them track the tides. They pay attention to it the way the rest of us attend to a work clock, bedtime or the morning alarm. It provides structure and meaning.

The water will rise and fall 4.5 to 6 feet between the tides. Unlike the beach, which is always in front of you, the marsh tides are around you, often with no more than a 2-foot elevation from the ocean. There are many adaptations needed to live in this environment – houses on stilts, elevated roads and bridges and a different mindset.

The wildlife simply pay attention and adapt – we can too. With ever-fluctuating tide times. life is more fluid and requires flexibility and adaptability. This speaks to the lessons.

Flexibility is needed to adapt to the natural fluctuations of the tides in our life.


We tend to think in black and white terms of more and less, good and bad, but with the tides it’s fascinating to see how each offers a different and equally important opportunity.

High tide, with the sea water coming in, means you can safely jump off the dock, float upstream, and there’s deeper water for your boat. To the wildlife, it means that dolphins and bigger fish can come into the creeks to enjoy its plentiful food. It provides a safer breeding ground and a nursery for babies.

Low tide means you can float downstream, toward the sea, the marsh mud is exposed and the shrimp and crabs are more concentrated. As the birds know, it’s the perfect to time to cast your shrimp nets or bait your crab cage.

What are your personal tides? Have you noticed the times of day that are your peak and your low? It’s smart to know your own rhythms so you can make the most of them. They all serve a purpose, neither is better or worse. We have cycles of highs and lows in all aspects and stages of life. Flexibility and adaptability allows us to flow through them, rather than judge them.

Knowing the naturally occurring tides of your day and your life creates greater acceptance and flow.


Borrowing from the naturally occurring wisdom of wildlife and their adaptation to the ebb and flow of tides, we can also see the themes of redemption in Pat Conroy’s books and personal life. Every extreme had its lesson, its point of awakening with new awareness that generated a different decision.

In real life, Pat Conroy’s book, The Great Santini helped mend the abusive relationship with his father. It generated greater awareness and support for the life style issues of military children.

In the Prince of Tides, Conroy’s fearlessness, in exposing the nature of mental illness, suicide and the drama it creates for families, gave hope to millions who have coped in silence and shame. Opening the doors to family dysfunction brought skeletons out of the closet and allowed for healing. Recovery and restoration only comes when the full nature of your situation is revealed and accepted.

It is from the other side of extremes that we appreciate the contrast and have the awakening moment that creates new wisdom and change.


People in the lowcountry love the tides, they love the lore and stories they produce. Just as in southern literature, romanticizing the messy details of life marks a good story and a life well lived. It’s all about the lessons, the ones learned just in time or not at all, left for others to recognize.  We all have extremes in our life. How do we learn from them, how do we move forward?

If we can embrace the naturally occurring ebb and flow of the different tides of our life, we can embrace the concept that it’s part of the life process. The lessons we learn from the highs and lows are why we are here. It’s the growth that defines the integrity of our life.

Recognizing both the low and high points of life gives us the wisdom to move forward with lessons learned.

The tides can teach us how to work with and move through life’s contrasts and extremes, as they each offer opportunity. When we learn to adapt to life’s ebb and flow, we will thrive just as the wildlife in the lowcountry have learned.

What lessons are the tides of your life teaching you? In many instances, we come to a point where it’s simply time to start over with some aspect of your life. Whether its recognizing an unsatisfactory career path, an unhappy relationship or wondering if it’s time for a change, there can be a call for something new. That is the wonderful opportunity that a low tide can bring.

If this is something you’d like to explore for yourself, I will be conducting a workshop on October 15th and 16th on the principals of “Starting Over”. These concepts will be explored in detail so you can clear out the old to bring in the new opportunity that is calling to you. More information will be coming soon. See my websitewww.spectrumtransformation.com for details and take advantage of my Free Consultation button to answers your questions. I’d love to hear from you.



Connie Milligan, LCSW
Connie Milligan, LCSW
As a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Connie has over 30 years experience as a clinician and change agent in the mental health and social justice arenas. She has been honored for her work with many awards, written numerous articles and provided extensive state and national training and consultation. After years of study, she is now a Transformational Life Coach offering workshops, classes and coaching for groups, couples and individuals. Learn more at http://www.conniemilligan.com