Tuesday, April 19, 2016

We Can't Stop Life's Waves. We Can Learn to Surf.

"You can't stop the waves, but you can learn 
to surf."            --John Kabat-Zinn

I’ve got waves on the brain. Not the cerebral kind, but real waves: rolling, roiling, unrelenting, “crashing upon the beach” kind of waves.  My wave wonder happened last weekend, when a wedding brought me to the heart of California’s surf country, Santa Cruz, 60 miles south of San Francisco. Santa Cruz a.k.a. “Surf City”. Rated the number 1 surfing spot in the United States by “Surfer” magazine.  A place of  “gnarly” and “dude”. and the Beach Boys and an endless summer. Think wetsuit clad women and men clutching freshly waxed surfboards, a fiery orange sun rising in the distance, seals frolicking in the surf, and white breakers rising up in a big blue ocean.  For a kid from Boston, who grew up on the beach watching diminutive waves roll in and then roll out, those west coast waves were a revelation. 

They are big. VERY BIG. Just up the coast in Half Moon Bay there is a set of swells called “The Mavericks” that can rise up to sixty feet high. Imagine surfing at the height of a six story building.  Waves are curious natural phenomena, a creation of the tides, the gravitational pull of the moon, underwater geologic features and the weather. Waves can travel thousands of miles across the ocean before landing upon our local shore. Waves can seem elegant, even gentle, but then try and stand fast against a wave and feel its weight smack against your body and you know you’ve faced a power greater than yourself.

And waves…well, they just keep on coming.  They are relentless.  Can’t stop them.  Can’t prevent the natural erosion these cause on beaches and bluffs.  Waves are forward momentum writ large. The author Geoffrey Chaucer was right when he wrote, “Time and tide waits for no man.”

Ask any surfer and they’ll tell you that the key then is to learn just how to surf the wave.  Ride upon it. Catch its energy.  Make peace with the force that creates it and then learn how to just go with the flow.  That’s great wisdom for real life surfers and great wisdom for us humans too, as we stand upon the shores of daily life and watch as the waves roll in. 

Life waves. 

Life can feel like a series of waves, always coming towards us, so powerful, non-negotiable, sometimes wonderful, sometimes awful, but perpetually in motion, and impossible to hold back.  My life wave lately has been facing into the truth of getting older.  Aging.  Time and tide goes in. Time and tide goes out. Repeat. Inside I still feel like a little boy standing on a sun dappled beach with my big brother, both of us skipping rocks, forever young.  But now when I throw that stone too hard, my bum shoulder hurts.  Or I stand upon the shore and wonder just where my life has gone.  Or I regret the things I haven’t done, or won’t ever do.  And the waves keep coming.

Waves.  Our first kid leaves the house for kindergarten or our last kid leaves the house for college.  Waves.  The doctor calls and tells us that the test results are good or the test results are bad.  Waves. The world we inhabit is changing so fast and nothing can hold back the breakneck pace of technological and social change. Waves. 

Waves remind us that while we may hope (even presume) that we have a tight grip upon our lives and can somehow command how our personal waves wash up on the shoreline, the truth is that life is most often governed by great forces far beyond human control. Fate. God. The universe. Luck. Chaos. Timing. Karma. Not that we don’t try to stand up to the wave, or beg it to stop, or even try to run away from it. 


You can learn a lot about life by watching the surfers as they make their way out to the offshore swells.  A few are in over their heads and flounder, but the smart surfer?  She carefully surveys the sea, and looks for the next big wave. Tenaciously paddles, catches a wave, stands up, rides down the tube, even as right above her, the wave threatens to break. She is on, but not over, the edge.  She is in charge by letting go.  And then the wave breaks and the surfer turns back around and she begins all over again. Now that’s a ride.

In life the waves are always coming in too. Nothing--no person, no human effort--can  hold them back.  So my advice? Surf’s up! Grab a board. Get surfing.



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