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Emails to my Therapist

Human Or A Whole Different Species? Are We All Kin or Not?

Dear Nicholas, I usually think that we humans are as much alike as we are different from each other, no matter the race or gender, orientation or education. One group dramatically casts this in doubt: the people who surf giant waves, the teetering mountains ten or more stories high. These people are not like me.

This Is Not a Trivial Distinction

It seems they either have some special capacity or lack some inhibiting impulse that makes them different from me and most everybody else. These athletes come within a millimeter of dying with every wave they ride. And they do it by choice again and again and again.

Why It’s Important

The question of our human kinship, our belonging to the same club, is fundamental. While I glory in my own quirkiness, I also want to be able to imagine myself in someone else’s situation. There are certainly other behaviors I don’t want to identify with, but I can sometimes convince myself that if I’d had the experience of people taking those actions, I might well do the same thing or at least be strongly tempted. (Mass shooters I simply consider severely ill.) With the big wave surfers, I can’t make the imaginative leap–to seeking this kind of danger or sublime experience or supreme thrill.

This matters because if we can’t follow other people’s emotional logic, then I’m pretty sure we’re going to remain politically polarized, savagely so. There won’t be a meeting place, or grounds for a conversation. Seeing the “other side” of an issue, or how someone came to their view, can be as daunting and awful as a rushing wall of water. Especially if the other view is, by one’s own ethics, immoral. I’m often unwilling to do it.

The question of otherness comes to mind because I’ve been reading Susan Casey’s The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean. (The subtitle refers to the waves not the wave riders.) I am fascinated and appalled and deeply drawn into the big-wave-chasers’ story.

Note the two tiny surfers riding that water mountain.

A Dream of Little Waves

I’ve always had fantasies of learning to surf. I thought I’d put those aside a couple of years ago, the last time I hit the water with a long board and it did not go well. But the desire lingers.

With these monster waves, however, I don’t even want to stand on the beach and watch. Many pro surfers have died under the churning pressure of a hundred tons of water. And shocking injuries occur routinely. I only want to see videos that I know will end well.

The Big Wave King

So what drives big-wave superstar Laird Hamilton and the others? Ten seconds at the front of the wave expand “across a violent blue universe,” Casey writes. “Inside the barrel…light and water and motion add up to something transcendent. It’s an exquisite suspension of all things mundane, in which nothing matters but living in that particular instant.”

A Highway Comparison

Another theory of motivation comes from a man who teaches driver’s ed. His life has been in serious danger quite a few times. No joke. Lots of close calls.. He doesn’t compare riding with teenagers to big wave surfing, but he describes a gradient of increasing risk and danger and competence. Once you set off on that curve of rising risk-and-capability, say by moving from little waves to slightly larger ones, then the idea arises of handling something even more challenging along the same line. For example, he has thought of training police to perform chases as safely as possible. And then what: NASCAR racing?

About the ride in the video above, Casey wrote, “If Hamilton had fallen, the wave cognoscenti agreed, the only thing left of him would have been a red stain on the reef.” I won’t burden you with gory details of rides that failed, but this is not an exaggeration.

The Moving Target

I get the idea of reaching one goal and quickly setting one’s hopes on the next. That seems to be a predictable human impulse. It’s certainly innate in writers. However, this goal-setting has its limits. It stops far short of traveling at freeway speed balanced on a wet board in front of the wave called Teahupoo, the name translating to “broken skulls.”

Stars–They’re Just Like Us

Celebrity gossip magazine Us carries a photo feature of movie stars running ordinary errands in their daily lives: “they’re just like us!” I don’t need any convincing on this point. Yes, movie stars are just like us. Big-wave surfers? I’m not so sure.

I’m only on page 65 in Casey’s astonishing book. Perhaps I will come to understand. Will I attempt surfing yet again? Maybe clinging face-down to a boogie board. On the more important matter of seeing into those surfers–well,  I might be able to write a piece of fiction from the point-of-view of a big-wave-rider–and perhaps, though more of a challenge, one in the vehement voice of a voter who does not think the way I do….a voter who is wrong wrong wrong.

It wouldn’t mean agreeing or condoning or backing off from one’s great causes. Instead just a glance through someone else’s eyeglasses, as an alternative to blinding rage.

Do you think such an exercise would help? I think we might all be helped if we could understand each other.



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