A Surfer's Guide to Bravery, Risk, and Failure.
Today, I am at Kealia Beach on the west shore of Kauai. It is Christmas Day.
As I sit in the sand on the shore, basking in the sunshine, I watch tan-skinned men walk by. They carry lightweight, colorful surfboards. Each of them stops near me to look out at the water, putting their hand up to their brow to shield their eyes from the sunlight. They stare into the ocean.
Every once in a while, one of them will take their surfboard, and begin to jog towards the water. They get about knee-deep, and as they begin to run a little harder, they slide themselves on to the board and begin to paddle.
As a surfer, in order to get to the 'good' place to wait, you must paddle past the breaking waves. It's wintertime, and the waves are monstrous and wild this time of year.
I watch a boy stop to search the waves. He can't be more than 13 years old. He carries a white surfboard. The sun has kissed his hair enough for it to be a shade lighter than his own skin. My maternal instinct watches the waves and watches the boy, and I am instantly worried for his safety.
The boy heads out into the water. He paddles out as the waves come in. With each wave, he must choose whether to go 'around' or 'through.' The small waves lift him with their tide, but the bigger ones require him to dive deep under the water to avoid being tumbled and rolled like clothes in a dryer.
Once he reaches the quiet, calm water, he joins nearly 20 other men. They are all sitting on their surfboards, straddled and waiting. And there they watch, analyzing the upcoming swell to decide if it is the right time for them to go.
IS THIS THE ONE? IS THIS THE RIGHT TIME? AM I READY?
[The ocean is a collection of almost all of the water in the entire world. The entire world. If you have ever dipped your feet into the ocean, you have touched something that has traveled the entire span of its 141,600,000 square miles. I'd venture to guess that there are places in your own home that you've never stood. Yet the ocean does it almost effortlessly.]
In order to experience the high of catching a wave, you must fail. You must be brave enough to fight the waves on the way out, and that part alone is harrowing, as you continue to shove yourself under and through each wave in the 'wrong' direction. But to experience the ride back in... to ride on the top of the greatest force of nature on our planet, there is a tremendous learning curve.
One does not simply 'go surfing.'
I watch as one surfer after another finds his chosen swell. Paddling ferociously to catch up to the moment when the wave crests and begins to tumble back onto itself. And time after time... over and over... they fail.
Either they miss the wave, not having begun at the exact right moment, or they catch the swell, but within seconds, they slip sideways off their board, or the water shoves them down, face first into the salt water as they crash into the ocean.
I've been watching this process for almost an hour now. I have yet to see a 'successful' ride in. And yet each time a surfer falls, he persistently paddles back out into the calm and waits for another chance.
Everything about surfing requires that you take risks. It requires that you summon bravery from the depths of the world. It asks that you trust yourself to stay alive, to come out on top, to find your balance when the moment is right. And it also demands that you fail, time and again, in service of the greater mission; to stand and dance and play on the top of the largest miracle on our planet.
And so is life, is it not?