Last week, I surfed the biggest waves of my life. Huge, double overhead Rio Nexpa. The surf was perfect. An A+ day. Our surf guide, Juan, couldn’t believe how lucky we were. We had the trip planned for months and had traveled all the way to Southern Mexico just in time for a huge swell.
The night before, I was restless, listening to the booming surf outside the window of the villa where my friends and I were staying. How big was it? Did I bring the right boards? I found myself praying, “Please God, don’t let me drown out there!”
The next morning, we woke at the crack of dawn. We nervously changed and waxed our boards. Grabbing leashes, applying sunscreen, peering out cautiously as the waves rolled in, one after the other, like corduroy all the way to the horizon. Man, did it look big!
I remember paddling out and staying glued to our guide. When he jumped into the water, I was right next to him. As he duck-dived, so did I. This guy knew this place and I didn’t. I wasn’t about to leave his side.
I made it outside with a little difficulty, but one of our group got picked off and was swept by the current way down the beach. Eventually he made it back out to us, but by then he was totally wiped out.
I still remember dropping into my first wave, a huge closeout, that erupted all around me. As I got to the bottom of the wave I got pitched over the front of my board. When I hit the water, it was like getting thrown out of a moving car. I couldn’t believe how fast I was going. I literally skipped on the water before penetrating.
But as I shook my head, the ringing in my ears faded. I paddled back out for another one. As a set started to roll in, another surf guide, Frederico, shouted for me to go. I paddled with everything I had and pushed over the lip. The wave felt enormous. As I dropped down the face, I glanced up to see where the lip was breaking. I had to crane my head back. I had never been on a wave that big. It was massive. As it stood up in front of me, it took everything mentally for me not to pull out of the wave early. If I didn’t make it, I was going to get destroyed.
The wave rose higher and higher above me. I grabbed the rail for stability and shot out in front of the crashing white wash, banking up the face and out the back of the wave. I let out the biggest shout. As I paddled back out to the lineup, I had the hugest grin from ear to ear. My friend Chuck smiled and said, “You got a good one!” My face said it all.
Afterwards, I found out that we were being filmed. A local kid, Jerry, had a camera and filmed the whole session. I couldn’t wait to see the footage. We sat back in the villa that night and watched clip after clip. There were so many great surfers out there. I watched as they elegantly linked their turns, sharp off the top and then fading back in the pocket. Smooth and graceful. There is something so artistic about surfing.
And then I recognized my board. Someone said, “hey, there’s the pastor”. As I watched the wave pop up on video, I’m not going to lie, I was a little disappointed. Certainly it was big, but not quite as big as I thought it was. As I dropped in, I could see the caution in my turns. I didn’t want to fall, and it showed. I played it safe. As I grabbed the rail and headed for the exit, I could now see that I should’ve cut back. I wasn’t in the pocket. I wasn’t surfing the wave to its potential.
Granted, it was the first day. But watching yourself like that can be a very humbling experience. The reality doesn’t match the embellished recollection. As another wave of mine popped up on the screen, I was tempted to look away. I didn’t want the memory tainted. I preferred my version of the story.
But another part of me fought back. Watch, even if it makes you perspire with humility. Because the truth can set you free. Seeing ourselves like that is painfully revealing, but it is necessary for growth. You’ll never progress without it.
The next day the waves were even bigger, but it didn’t slow me down. I became more conscious of my turns. I stayed further back on the wave. I pushed myself to come all the way through my cut backs. Because I knew that tonight I’d be staring at that same screen. And I didn’t care if I looked better or worse than anyone else. I just wanted to improve. To grow. Because deep down, that experience is richer. It is one thing to surf well in your mind. Quite another to have it live up to that on film.
I remember Dallas Willard once saying that reality is what we bump up against when we’re wrong. It can feel intrusive. It can be offensive. But it is what it is. It is immovable. It doesn’t attack or condemn. It doesn’t judge. But it does demand of us integrity. It holds our words accountable. It challenges our sugar-coated veneers with which we paint our lives. Our actions speak so much louder than our words.
I want to live like this. As a husband, father, pastor, friend. I don’t want to hide from my imperfections or timidities. I want to accept them, and to grow. To have the courage to look at reality without flinching. To submit to its authority. And then to press back aggressively. To make my metaphorical carves and cutbacks with more precision and commitment. Not for the sake of the camera or the viewer, but for the sake of truth. To live and grow in the freedom of reality.