“The only way out, it through, bro,” the smiling longboarder said to me, bobbing comfortably in the ocean a few feet away from where I struggled.
I looked out towards the bigger waves. My heart sunk, but I knew he was right.
My buddy Paul had come with me and my (then) young family to Otter Rock, a well-known beginner surf break near Newport, Oregon. He had gone out immediately while I stayed on the beach, playing with my kids in the sand for the bulk of an hour. I had seen Paul catch a wave or two in the whitewater, in the wind sheltered part of the break that was near the actual rock for which the area is named.
The problem was that the eight-foot swell had enough South in it to create a healthy rip current running parallel to the beach. Eventually, the swell hit the rocks on the north part of the cove and wanted to tug anything – log, dog, or surfer – out to sea. Paul really wasn’t surfing as much as floundering. He had only been surfing a handful of times and was still very much in beginner’s territory. I hadn’t much more experience than he had.
Eventually, he came in, panting.
“That rip’s crazy, man.”
It had been killing me, watching him catch (and miss) waves that I’d been mind-surfing like Slater. My sense of empathy, not to mention my common sense, was suspended as only a dry surfer’s can be.
“Well, let’s get out there!”
My wetsuit already on and familial responsibilities complete for the time being, I grabbed my board and started walking to the most wind-sheltered part of the break, which also held the strongest rip. Paul followed. I figured we could paddle against the current to keep lined up where the waves were re-forming and breaking. Paul and I would trade crumbling waves in the cold Oregon water under partly cloudy skies. In Oregon, this is a fairly normal day of surfing.
But it wasn’t meant to be. I had misjudged not only the level of my buddy’s fatigue but the strength of the rip current.
I struggled almost immediately, but at least I had fresh arms with which to paddle. Within a few minutes, however, Paul was wasted, laying his head on his board and paddling with one arm. There was no way we could stay in the lineup with any degree of stability for more than a few seconds. The alternative was to get “sucked out” via the rip into waves neither of us were comfortable with.
For fifteen minutes we completely “kooked out” (that shouldn’t even be in quotations. It’s too literal). As he was completely spent, I would push him ahead a few feet parallel to the shore, then paddle to him and push again. The idea was correct, even if the application was sophomoric. When caught in a rip current, the thing to do is to swim /paddle parallel to the beach until one is out of it. It’s kind of like crossing a river.
Unfortunately for us, however, we made zero progress. Now I was toast, too. My shoulders burned and my chest heaved.
Out of nowhere, the longboarder paddled up with enough ease to make me instantly envious. He told us to just let the current suck us out to sea. The rip, he said, would let up and we could ride the whitewater back in.
Throwing Paul completely under the surf bus, I told him “my buddy’s a beginner and those waves look kinda big.”
To his credit, my longboarding surf counselor didn’t remind me that it was obvious that we were, ahem, both beginners. He just said, “The only way out is through, bro.” Then he paddled off. I decided then and there to get a longboard, rather than the shortboards Paul and I were both currently using as glorified floatation devices.
But first for the task at hand.
In short, we did as we were instructed. Within seconds, the river-like current took us a couple hundred yards from the beach. In later years, this would be nothing to either of us. As it stood at the time, however, it might as well have been the middle of the shark and Fukishima-infested Pacific.
I was truly scared; not only for myself – a lifelong asthmatic with symptoms brought on by stress and exertion, both in abundance at the time – but for my friend.
In the end, our fears were entirely unjustified. Yes, we took two sets on the head. But these were not big waves. In fact, they weren’t even barrels. There wasn’t enough energy in the wave to “barrel”. They mushed over and tossed us around a little, but the whole affair was over within three or four minutes. We probably spent no more than twenty seconds under the water, combined.
In the end, we came to shore with a better understanding of the ocean and a story to tell. So, what’s the point? One more little vignette first.
I have a friend that just broke up with his girlfriend. They both knew for several months that it wasn’t right. My friend was genuinely suffering, but he continued to wait and hope and work for something to shift. For the past several weeks, he put off having “the talk” with her. Yes, she’s gorgeous. Yes, they both work on themselves and are what I’d call “conscious” (or at least know what that means). Yes, they seemed to be a great couple, with tons of promise. But it just wasn’t meshing. At some point, “healthy perseverance” shifts into “fear avoidance”. That’s where he was.
The only way out is through, bro.
In the past, my friend has had violent situations where he had to call law enforcement to keep from getting hurt further – or worse, hurting his upset partner in retaliation for her physical abuse. I understood his reluctance. Would this be the same thing? I didn’t think so, but I understood his fear.
With my encouragement, my friend finally decided enough was enough and approached his partner with his feelings. It turned out she had been having the same. They had a serious talk about their future, both together and separate. They shared dreams and hopes and not a little laughter; at themselves and at life. They decided together to call it quits and they rode to the metaphorical beach together with more experience and a story to tell.
That was it.
The point is that most of us are very, very susceptible to a common mind trick; that of taking a significant experience from the past and making it “just like this one”, which creates fear that’s usually irrational at best, psychotic at worst. My friend suffered for weeks before he decided that he’d suffered enough, that nothing was going to change, and that his best bet was to “take it on the head” to get it over with.
He was right.
So it goes with many things, in many areas of life. This lesson can have applicability to our careers, our relationships, the maintenance of a car, our health… anything where an agreement has been made and has been broken or simply needs to be adjusted. In these situations, we don’t know what lies ahead, but it looks like less control than we have at the moment, no matter how unacceptable the current condition is that we’re “controlling”. It’s helpful to note that control and fear go hand-in-hand. The thing to remember is that ultimately, both fear and control need our own illusions to exist.
In fact, when it comes to soulful growth, the idea that we are in control is anathema to it. Letting go of the idea that we are in control of anything but our own actions is like fertilizer for the flowering of our own consciousness. When we admit to ourselves that there is nothing to control, we find that there is indeed nothing to fear.
In the end, this was the story for Paul and I, as well as my friend in the relationship. None of us had anything to fear. In reality, we looked rather foolish trying to retain control in our various situations, whether it was a tanking relationship or the Pacific Ocean. For all of us, only when we had had enough pain did a teacher appear. Only then were we able, via kind soul or friendly listening ear, to be open to exhuming the courage to face our irrational fears.
In these situations, wisdom in action is illustrated when we stop fighting and allow the current take us out. It’s usually not nearly as bad as we think it will be.
Sometimes, the only way out is through, bro.
Photo Credit: Getty Images