It’s not difficult to find words that describe today’s youth. One of the most concerning is “desensitized,” and unfortunately, there are plenty of applications for its use when it comes to our generation. Anything from not batting an eye at another dunk highlight to shrugging when we see images of missiles slamming into school houses located in countries we can’t pronounce the names of. How do you quantify it? Is the fact that we sit for hours killing virtual people in virtual worlds with a smile on our face cause for concern? I don’t want to argue the morality of modern entertainment, but it does clearly illustrate that we are indeed desensitized. And that desensitization has leaked through the cracks and found its way into the realm of surfing.
Desensitization usually happens so slowly that we’re not even aware of it. But if we focus on just surfing here for a moment, I think the trend is quite evident. Airs aren’t impressive any more unless it’s Reynolds or Florence 30 feet above the lip, and we are bummed if the waves at a Pipe contest don’t at least threaten serious bodily injury. Take, for example, big-wave surfing and the fairly recent Hercules storm that delivered ungodly swells to Europe. We all saw the videos. We all looked at the photos. But in a way, we’re almost used to them now. It doesn’t resonate realistically anymore. Maybe YouTube is to blame for offering us a bottomless well of videos championing big-wave surfers pursuing these aquatic mobile mountains, or maybe it’s the magazine pictures scattered on the floors of our bathrooms. Either way, we’ve seen it before. It isn’t blowing our minds. We view it like a video game or a movie production. And that’s what’s scary.
We’ve truly forgotten just what it means to surf waves like those that accompanied Hercules. Pause for a moment and really think about it. Those surfers are moments away from death. Moments away from something going wrong: hitting a bump in the face, getting disoriented underwater, being held down by an entire set, their leashes being caught on reefs, whatever, but it all comes down to the fact that they could imminently be facing their own mortality. Plenty of talented surfers have died surfing big waves. And they are surfing; essentially playing in the ocean. Yet these individuals have decided to add the very real possibility of death into that equation. That decision contradicts our very purpose as living organisms: to survive at all costs. It’s hard-wired into our DNA. But here these surfers are, hurling themselves into 50-foot waves and laughing it off when the Jet Ski barely manages to pull them from a situation where any normal person would drown. No other species willingly puts itself in the path of death. It’d be like a squirrel strapping on skis and deciding to haul ass right in front of an avalanche while the rest of the woodland critters hooted from the trees. Only humans. Is that not overwhelmingly baffling?
So yeah, they get high-fives back on the boat and they get their picture on the cover of the magazine. But what does it really say about these surfers that they continually put themselves in these situations? And for what: an adrenaline rush? Maybe. Or maybe not. But either way, more power to them. They’ve earned their success. They’ve trained their asses off. Nobody’s arguing that. But more importantly, what does a fascination with big-wave surfing say about the rest of us as surf fans? That depends. If we watch these surfers carve the very line between life and death, say “damn,” and close our browsers, then perhaps we are the crazy ones. So take a look at one of these photos. Watch another video of a guy deciding he wants to ride a piece of foam down an office building’s worth of one of the most destructive forces on the planet. Then react differently. Think about what these people are putting on the line. Think about the skill it takes not only to ride the wave, but to survive a fall. It’s not just another air that someone lands one time in 50. There is no room for experimenting. So be in awe: actual and pure awe of this feat. Because if we aren’t, then we truly are desensitized beyond salvage.