Diggin’ the archives: here’s a piece by Helen Anthony on the selfishness of surfing, and what’s ok about that.
Photo by Morgan Maassen
This is My Wave
OK, surfing is a selfish activity, but that’s not going to stop me doing it.
I’m selfish. I wish I wasn’t, but I am. I invest more time and energy in surfing than is helpful for my relationships.
Recently, I tactlessly suggested taking my surfboard to a funeral because I knew there was a good surf spot nearby. Didn’t go down too well.
Surfers are nice people, but in an ideal world they wouldn’t have to share their waves. Maybe occasionally, in the dark days of winter when the sun has called in sick with Seasonal Affective Disorder, there are glimpses of camaraderie. On days like that I’m willing to share a piece of the violently cold sea with a few other shuddering souls, but it’s difficult to be so giving in summer when the swell is less consistent and the sea is caked in tiny black bodies like the windscreen of a car.
So, can it be argued that surfing brings some benefit to others, even if unintentionally? Well, to be honest, I’m struggling. There is something to be said for how some sporting achievements inspire us – for instance, maybe somebody climbs something that hasn’t been climbed before and they stick a flag on the top. Best of luck sticking a flag in a wave. Big-wave surfing possibly falls into the ‘inspirational’ category, but the average surfer’s accomplishments go unrecorded and unwitnessed. I often don’t have any idea how my friend’s session went even after we’ve been surfing the same salty cocktail all afternoon.
Since I was inspired to try the sport in the first place by watching someone ride a nice wave, it could be argued that the act of surfing itself is a positive force. A friend of mine figures that because surfing makes him happy, he’s a nicer person in polite society. And I guess it also keeps the groms off the streets. In any case, these are all secondary, by-products – they aren’t the reason why we surf.
Many surfers I know have a strong work ethic, but it’s got nothing to do with their paid employment. They believe in earning happiness.
Personally, I don’t surf to inspire the human race, which is fortunate because, in surfing terms, I’m a good example why we should be humble. And I don’t do it to chill me out or keep me out of mischief. In fact, surfing has made me moodier now – when there’s no swell, it’s written all over my face and not in a pretty way. I surf simply because I love it.
But, surfers aren’t just hedonists. They are often devoted and in devotion is self-surrender. We put ourselves through pain and indignity. There are long periods of enforced denial. If you don’t live near the sea you may have a long drive. You may also have to get up painfully early to catch the right tide, or miss the crowds. More often than not, the conditions are poor. If you want to surf more than once in a day, at least here in England in the winter, you’ll have to get changed in a freezing car park and put on a shrunken, sticking, gritty, sodden wetsuit. Parts of your body will go numb. The average Hindu holy man who’s decided to find moksha (liberation) by standing on one leg for 12 years probably doesn’t put himself through such self denial and discomfort.
Many surfers I know have a strong work ethic, but it’s got nothing to do with their paid employment. They believe in earning happiness. They’d like to avoid the hard work if they could, but on some level they realise that without it, the rewards would feel less sweet. So they learn self-discipline, patience and, (in my case anyway) a lot of humility. Surfing is fundamentally selfish, yet its unwitnessed, transitory nature, how difficult it is, and the sheer magnitude of the opponent, leave slim pickings for the ego. In fact, any residual ego will likely slide out of your nose onto your forearm at the first inconvenient moment that presents itself after a session anyway, no matter how beautiful the last wave you caught.
But most of the time there’s negligible cost to others, so it’s good-selfish, rather than bad-selfish. If you didn’t feed the dog because you were too busy rushing out for a surf, you might be drifting towards the rocks of bad-selfishness. But all the rest? It’s excusable. We’re only neoprene-coated humans after all.
– This piece and photo by Morgan Maassen appeared in the Agree to Disagree column of TSP81