Surfing, Depression and Identity
Like many, I started surfing because it looked fun and cool. The whole lifestyle was inviting. The secret language, the adventure, the travel, the boards, the waves, and the clothes all looked so appealing. As I dipped my toe into the lifestyle at 15 years old, I wanted more and more.
Since then my whole life has subconsciously been shaped around surfing. All the major changes in my life were indirectly linked to the activity. I’ve spent the last 10 years living 6,000 miles away from home so I could surf. My mood is influenced by surfing and my business is now shaped by it.
I’m 31 now, 15 years after my surfing life began, and living in Orange County, California. In the past few years, I’ve endured the loss of my home and career, a divorce, an awful depression, tension with my family, cancer, another terrible relationship and the task of realizing all my choices in life had led me to this point.
Queue the inevitable self-exploration. Who am I? What makes me happy? I tried to identify all of the negative I had in me, the pain, and the anger. I did everything anyone recommended. I read Buddhist teachings, I read supposed books of meaning like Siddhartha and The Old Man and the Sea. I dove into self-help books and attachment science. I took therapy and I took pills. I had every opinion and theory about life thrown at me. It all helped and I learned a lot. What I learned about myself is that simple is fine. I don’t need the big house, the car, or the career.
I do need the ocean, though.
I also learned that most humans need an identity. Psychologist Abraham Maslow defined a hierarchy of needs that included health, shelter, safety, esteem, and belonging. Belonging is an interesting one. As advanced as humans are, our primal instincts still dominate much of our thoughts. We are very tribal and we choose our tribes accordingly, political or ideological. Just like the cavemen, we still believe there is safety in numbers.
As surfers, we are extremely lucky to have something so pure and exhilarating that it becomes easy to gain a passion for it. First and foremost surfing is a sport. It’s technical and physical. You need to train and learn and practice. Then it becomes the lifestyle that in turn fuels your passion for the environment, for travel, for other people, the natural world and a love of life.
Although you become part of a tribe, surfing is a selfish pastime (but that’s ok). We can paddle out with our friends but in the end, we’re solitary in gliding along that green or blue face, hand gently tickling the wall. In a moment that wave will expire and cease to exist forever. It was just you (probably) who got to experience that moment. Call me a hippy, but that’s something pretty special. Suddenly, a selfish act fulfills us, gives us identity, and fills us with confidence. Perhaps there is some other primal psychology at play, engaging so intimately with nature. One can find a similar feeling walking in the woods or hiking a mountain.
As Jeff Foster wrote, “Perhaps our depression is not a sickness but a call to break out, to let go, to lose the old structures and stories we have been holding up about ourselves and the world and rest deeply in the truth of who we really are…What if you need to shed your half-shed skin, not climb back into it? What if sadness, and pain, and fear, and all of the waves in life’s ocean, just want to move in you, to finally express themselves creatively and not be pushed away?”
Now, that doesn’t sound so depressing.
Words By Simon Short
Adventures By An Average Surfer