Here comes the wave.
I grew up near the Pacific Ocean, and I’ve always had a respectful, yet slightly fearful relationship with the sea.
I love being close to the ocean. I love staring into the ocean. I love feeling the gentle spray of the ocean. But most of the time, I’m afraid to swim into the ocean — especially in deeper waters, when I can’t see or feel the bottom beneath me.
I vividly remember one experience, as a little kid — maybe eight or nine years old — when I was snorkeling in peaceful, shallow waters. This was during a family vacation in Hawaii. My parents were hanging out on the beach, laughing with friends and discussing grown-up things. I was feeling brave-ish, so I ventured out into the water on my own.
I was mesmerized by the colorful tropical fish and the otherworldly coral reef. I swam, swam, swam for hours with my plastic face mask staring down at the bottom of the reef, just two or three feet beneath me. So close, I could reach down and practically graze it with my fingertips, or stand up if I wanted to.
Then suddenly, without warning, the reef vanished — shattering off into sheer cliff, like an underwater mountain — descending down, down, down into black nothingness.
I panicked. My stomach lurched. I felt like I was falling into the blackness, spiraling into outer space — even though, in reality, I was perfectly safe, floating with my little foam board at the surface. I lurched my head out of the water, and realized that I’d paddled very far from the shore. I did a 180 and swam back to the sand at an Olympian pace.
My parents greeted me on the shore with a towel.
“Have fun out there?” they asked.
I nodded, too embarrassed to admit that I felt completely terrified.
I think that was the last time I went swimming in the ocean. Like, really swimming. Not just splashing around on the shore.
Approximately 25 years later.
Today, I spontaneously attended a beginner-level surfing class. Why surfing? Because surfers are undeniably cool, and I wanted to feel cool. Haha. Why else? Because I wanted to confront my fears about swimming in the ocean. And because I figured, if nothing else, I’d get a nice tan.
First, the instructor had me practice a few movements on the shore, popping up and down a few times to get the general hang of things. Down on my belly, arms pressed by my sides, like a cobra pose in yoga. Then popping up to my feet, arms outstretched for balance. Down and up. Up and down. Simulating what I’d be doing on the board.
“You’re goofy footed,” the instructor told me.
“Uh… thank you?” I laughed. He explained that it’s surfer slang. It means you instinctively put your right foot forward on the board — which is slightly unusual –instead of your left — which is more common. Left foot is natural footed. Right foot is goofy.
And then it was time to head out into the water. And I definitely felt very goofy. Everything felt awkward. Even just sitting on the board — without toppling over — required my full concentration and all of my core muscles.
Over and over, my instructor would select a good wave for me. Then he’d point me towards the shore, and push me into the wave at just the right moment.
“Go! Pop up!” he’d call out, urging me to pop onto my feet.
Except somehow, it wouldn’t happen. Most times, I’d sorta get one foot propped up onto the board, inching forward in little micro-scoots, and then maybe one knee, and then promptly fall off in an un-graceful fashion. I couldn’t figure out how to get onto both feet at the same time. It felt physically impossible.
After seven or eight tries, the instructor told me, “You’re hesitating. You’re waiting too long. By the time you’ve got one foot on the board, the wave is basically over.”
I nodded. It was true.
“You can feel that moment when the full force of the wave is behind you, right?” he asked. “You can feel it carrying you. When you feel that — right then, that moment —
no waiting. When it’s time to pop up, POP UP!”
We bobbed in the water for a few seconds, and then it was time to try again.
“It’s a good one,” he smiled, setting me up to catch a nice, rolling wave with a perfect white crest. He shoved me into the heart of the swell, and I could feel the momentum building behind me.
“Go! Pop up!”
And I popped. Right up. I didn’t think about it. I didn’t analyze it. I didn’t paralyze myself with fears about how deep or shallow the water was, or if it might hurt if I fell off. I just popped. Goofy footed and brave and determined.
And I rode that wave like a total pro…
… for approximately 1/3rd of a second.
OK. Not hugely impressive. BUT STILL. I did it! I got to experience that incredible rush, even though it was just for the briefest of moments. And then I couldn’t wait to do it again.
Hours later — toweled off and dry, back in my room — I kept thinking about what the instructor had told me. What he said about hesitating too long, well, of course, it’s good advice for newbie surfers, but it’s a powerful metaphor for “life,” too.
An ocean wave only lasts for a few seconds and then it’s over. A human life only lasts for a few decades (or much less, sometimes) and then it’s over. If we hesitate too long — over-thinking, second-guessing, fretting, mired in our fears — then we lose our chance to experience what we want.
I used to stare into the ocean with a mixture of awe and anxiety. Now, after today, the ocean symbolizes something else for me: urgency.
This is it, you know? This is life. It’s finite. The calendar flips to a new month, then a new year. The wave rolls in. Before we can blink, it’s all over.
We can’t allow ourselves to whimper and hesitate, postpone things until someday later, make excuses, or sink into lethargy and inertia. We can only say “maybe next summer” so many times, because eventually we run out of summers.
The right time to say “I love you” is now. The right time to write a book is now. The right time wear a pineapple-print bikini is now — not ten pounds down from now. The right time to start saving up for a trip to Thailand or Tokyo is now. The right time to pop up onto that board is now.
Here comes the wave. It’s only here for a moment. Hesitate — or pop up? Let it pass — or seize the ride? It’s a choice we make in a million different ways, every day of our lives.
I usually ask myself, “Is it safe to proceed? Is it the right time? Maybe I should study / practice / prepare more?”
But maybe the new question I need to start asking is,
“What the hell am I waiting for?”