It’s never too early in the year to piss off the rank and file and get the internet choked up on seven different flavors of fussy.
At some point last year, Surfer published an article (in print) by Justin Housman, which I read, snorted at, and moved on with my life. Yesterday, they republished said article, titled, “Climb Down From That High Horse,” which is currently in the early running for “Troll Article of the Year by A National Magazine.” Its second publishing made me want to wax poetic myself. While you should read the article for yourself, the general gist of it is this: anyone who espouses any higher “spiritual significance” to surfing is full of crap.
Now, in general, I like Housman’s writing. He manages to carry a coherent thought for more than 15 words at a time, which is an accomplishment amongst many surf writers. The critical problem with this article is that, unfortunately, his premise is a steaming turd.
Housman sets him up for disaster from the get-go by framing the debate about surfing’s spirituality by comparing it to golf. If golf is truly a sport (I personally am doubtful) it is just barely on the “sport” side of the line, jeering at its friends bowling and ping pong residing just on the other side of the divide. Regardless, golf is about as far a cry from surfing as you could possibly manage. Change Bobby Martinez’ famous anti-ASP rant from “tennis” to “golf” and the rant works just the same.
Golf. Tennis. Surfing. One of these things is (thankfully) not like the others. Bobby Martinez knows which one.
Golf is an activity burdened by rules, with a clear objective: put the tiny ball in the hole using as little effort as possible. I cannot possibly think of a description that is further from how most of us (spiritual or not) would describe surfing. Half the surfing population (myself included) wouldn’t describe surfing as a sport. While there are people who surf competitively, the landscape is far bigger than that. Until someone finds a better word, I’ll call surfing art. It’s people expressing creativity on any of a buffet-sized variety or surfboards, and we’re most drawn to those who draw unique or original lines across the face of waves, none of which are quite the same. And yes, surfing is an athletic endeavor, which separates it from what most people think of when they hear, “art.” And yes, like a lot of other art, the majority of the populace’s surfing is pretty terrible (I proudly count myself amongst the scribblers here).
The biggest issue with the piece is that he’s attempting to objectively discuss spirituality. I don’t give a shit what Webster’s or Urban Dictionary or anyone else tells you, there’s no definition of spirituality that can possibly encompass what everyone in the world believes spirituality to be, unless that definition is so watered down that it’s utterly useless. From there, if we can’t define spirituality so that everyone is in agreement, how could we possibly determine what activities contribute to it or strengthen it? Telling people what they should believe based on your own values hasn’t exactly worked out so well for humanity in the past (see: the entire history of the Middle East).
I’ve made no bones about the fact that I think surfing touches something deeper than the surface level, something more special, for me, than anything else. It certainly doesn’t always. Everyone has bad days in the water, just like on land, and there are definitely times that it’s easy to be an asshole in the water, to backpaddle people, to bitch about the tide (it’s too high!) or the swell (it’s too small!). I’m not claiming to be an exception to any of this, nor am I claiming to always manage to stay above the bullshit associated with the business of surfing, as opposed to the act of surfing.
When it comes together, though, when the ocean is at its finest, there is something enriching for me, and more than a few other people, too. Surfing can be meditative (try it, Mr. Housman, it’ll clear out the unnecessary mental detritus!), it can be calming and teach patience. It demands commitment, strength, and respect of nature. All of these things are terrible! They certainly couldn’t possibly help human beings become better versions of themselves.
I’m willing to say that maybe surfing itself isn’t inherently spiritual. Maybe the act of surfing is merely a tool, which can either be used well or ineptly. Note that I’m not saying good surfing is a good use of the tool. You don’t necessarily get more intangible spirit points for being able to pull into heaving, stand-up barrels than you do for being able to paddle a soft top into crumbly beach break. With all the bullshit that clutters up our lives these days, maybe surfing is merely a way to quiet the noise that bombards us from all sides. In that quieter space, it’s a lot easier to see and feel what might really be important.
All of this, of course, is personal opinion. It’s impossible to say that the feeling I get from surfing is the same feeling that someone else gets. The ocean is a force of nature that grabs me and wrestles the entire gamut of emotions out of me on a weekly basis, but I can’t definitively declare that the mountains or canyons don’t do the same for others. So there’s no way anyone can really set the verdict on surfing’s potential for spirituality in stone, one way or another.
So Mr. Housman, I’ll happily climb down from the elevated position on my supposed horse, if you’ll turn down the microphone on your damn pulpit.