Mavericks: Surfing and the Economics of Joy

This column was the featured commentary on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum on January 14, 2008.

Here’s the extent of my surfing experience: in the center of my coastal hometown there is a monument to a kid who died surfing in the sixties. It’s a small memorial that sits on an island at the confluence of the village’s two main streets. Most people from the town are unaware of its existence, but that little memorial haunted me just enough that I never learned to surf. Also, when we were in the tenth grade, my friend, Saul, went surfing over lunch break and was washed out to sea. A couple hours, later members of the local volunteer fire department picked him up off the rocks at the base of a ninety foot cliff. Saul was fine, but it cemented the idea in my mind that you had to be nuts to surf, at least in the waves off of the Mendocino coast where the water is treacherous, rough, and very cold.

Nor have I looked to the surfing community for wisdom. My friends who surf tell me the experience is profound and often mystical, that it is humbling and transformative to be in the presence of the ocean’s power, but it always has seemed to me that the great spiritual insights of surfing don’t translate to those of us who never have experienced the thrill of riding a wave, whose feet are rooted in the soil, or whose noses are forever poked into the pages of books.

But last Saturday’s surfing contest at Mavericks near Half Moon Bay, California has changed my opinion of surfing’s potential to transform the world. Continue reading