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–or even political party. But there are individuals and groups that cast this in doubt: one small but vivid example being 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, taking the actions that they do. There are certainly lots of behaviors and beliefs I don’t want to identify with, but I can sometimes convince myself that if I’d had the experience of people taking a seemingly alien course, 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 craving and seeking this kind of danger or sublime experience or supreme thrill. Nor can I make the leap to political action that is the extreme opposite of mine.
This matters because if we can’t follow the emotional logic that leads to others’ choices, 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. But 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 more often than not unwilling to do it. I hesitate long over suggesting it now. And I fear it may be too late, the differences too large and absolute.
The question of otherness came to mind a couple of weeks ago as I was 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.”
I’m Working at Understanding
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.” On the other hand, reaching the next goal likely does explain much political aggression.
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 still to be convinced. And wrong-headed voters? Incomprehensible. As if some part of them came from some other world.
One option: I could write a piece of fiction from the point-of-view of a big-wave-rider–and perhaps, though far more of a challenge, one in the voice of a voter who does not think the way I do….one who is wrong wrong wrong. Doing such a thing wouldn’t mean agreeing or condoning or backing off from my causes. Instead just a glance through someone else’s eyeglasses, potentially more useful perhaps than blinding incapacitating rage.
Do you think such an exercise would help? I think we might all be helped if we could understand each other. Or maybe we understand all too much already.
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