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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–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.

Oceanic Otherness

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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  • Mike Collins
    June 28, 2022 at 3:13 pm Reply

    There are a variety of reasons why the folks who support the other side do so, but here’s one that might surpse you: I believe there are a lot of older, white males who can’t get it up now and who use the hate/misogyny/racism that forms the foundation of Trump’s/Repub brand as a way to feel powerful, almost sexually so. The feeling they get harkens back to a time when they believed they mattered, unlike the present in which they feel left behind, no longer relevant.

    • Peggy Payne
      June 28, 2022 at 3:21 pm Reply

      Yes, this is a thought that surprises me, Mike. I sure hope there aren’t many in that camp. I wish any such men knew that everyone matters, everyone is relevant, including them.

  • Gail Chesdon
    June 28, 2022 at 3:34 pm Reply

    As a writer, we often approach characters much different from ourselves. Those characters, however, hold some part of us regardless. Getting into the head of some of these idiotic/crazy/wrong political people means we have to accept we have bits of that kind of idiotic/crazy/wrong in us as well. Not fun to admit, we’re none of us perfect.
    The difference is knowing that there are more sides to an issue than our own. There we find the humanity if not any understanding.

    • Peggy Payne
      June 28, 2022 at 3:40 pm Reply

      A good thought that one can recognize the humanity in someone, Gail, without at all understanding their views or actions. Probably a lot of parents have that experience with their children.

  • Robert Braxton
    June 28, 2022 at 6:40 pm Reply

    Car talk on Public radio used to sign off “Don’t drive like my brother” and “Don’t drive like my brother.” If you could write it, I gladly would read “Don’t vote like MY brother”!

    • Peggy Payne
      June 28, 2022 at 6:57 pm Reply

      I remember that, Bob. And I do miss them. Fortunately, both my brothers vote the way I do. Though likely you didn’t mean that quite so literally.

  • alcooke
    June 28, 2022 at 8:47 pm Reply

    You might be interested in the Darwin Awards for people who conceive ingenious ways to remove themselves from the gene pool.

    • Peggy Payne
      June 28, 2022 at 8:57 pm Reply

      I had a look, Al. Amazingly “ingenious.” There’s probably big-wave-surfer immortalized there somewhere. Aside from the pros and the stars, there are people who attempt those waves who aren’t at all capable of doing it un-disastrously.

  • June 29, 2022 at 3:02 am Reply

    Good post – thought provoking and challenging. Me, I just want to go home and cultivate my own garden while I still can.

    • Peggy Payne
      June 29, 2022 at 3:07 am Reply

      Thanks. And, other than having a lot to say, going home and cultivating my garden is pretty much what I do.

  • June 29, 2022 at 3:42 am Reply

    Voltaire’d support our choices.

    • Peggy Payne
      June 29, 2022 at 6:51 am Reply

      Well, i’m working on my French.

  • Alcooke
    July 9, 2022 at 12:53 pm Reply

    I keep remembering this post. And i have to acknowledge that sometimes i’m cocky enoogh to think i could body surf on those waves. I’m sure you remember body surfing. I used to be pretty good and never have seen a need to try a board. I could swim down the face of those waves and allow them to push me toward shore. I might have reservations about what is on that shore. I’ve been thrown into the sand and shells, but rocks are a different story. in reality I expect to never get in the water where those waves are, even though Portugal does call.

    • Peggy Payne
      July 9, 2022 at 5:25 pm Reply

      I’m glad to hear you’re not getting near those waves, Al.I do remember body surfing, though I wasn’t so good at it. And I found that on a surfboard, I needed a push to even catch a wave. I’m working on improving that. Wrightsville has plenty big enough waves, I think. And no rocks–or coral reefs.

  • alcooke
    July 9, 2022 at 11:03 pm Reply

    I like the no rocks part. I would love to snorkel some corsal reefs

    • Peggy Payne
      July 10, 2022 at 2:01 am Reply

      Yes, snorkeling in calm water!

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