For whatever reason, community has always been a tricky concept for me to put my finger on. I've been lucky enough to come into contact with so many communities in so many places. It's a word that's thrown around a lot in the modern age but what really constitutes a community? Is it a willingness to commit to a common goal? Is community achieved less through desire and more out of necessity? These are questions that probably have both affirmative and negative answers, depending on the type of community we are observing and how our context and perspective influences these observations.
I'm sure of one thing and it's that communities are abundant anywhere. From the small communities of moss growing on the footpath to human communities the world over, the presence of communities assures us of one very important fact: all life exists only in relationship. I mentioned this idea — an idea taken from Gregory David Haskell — last time I wrote on here but it's a simple fact that I keep returning to. Sometimes we choose our communities and sometimes they choose us. All the communities we exist within influence the way we live, shapes our personal contact, and irrevocably affects the way we view our life on this earth.
I guess I've been a surfer for around thirteen years now. It feels strange to put a number on it, but when I finally transitioned from lying down to standing up it was undoubtedly a life changing event. I've often questioned the existence of a surf community and whether it's universal. On this trip I tried to put that theory to the test, and here's what I've found...
Surfers are funny bunch, and apart from our common love of riding waves we've all got our fair share of differences. The lifestyle attracts people of all ages, and in all climates. Whether it's slipping on some boardies on a hot summer's day or wrangling into a 5mm wetsuit as snow falls on the beach, we ride waves because we can't imagine doing anything else. At least that's what I believe.
On this trip so far strangers have taken me in, shown me local secret spots, let me use their surfboards and performed countless other generous gestures in good faith. Sometimes I'd met these people in person, other times their generosity and kindness has stemmed almost completely from the fact that I surf. This has meant that my surfing experiences over the past three months have been filled with joy and euphoria. Surfing is one of those things that, while I do enjoy doing alone, is always better shared. The wild hoot as a mate scores the set of the day; the shared stoke after a beautiful wave; and who could forget the fun involved in a party wave? (where two or more friends willingly share the same wave).
These moments have been frequent as I continue to ride south. Yesterday after crawling out my tent — which was perched right in front of the wave — I shared a pre-sunrise session at Lower Trestles with Bill, an old hand of the local lineup. Gary joined us soon after, and we shared waves and conversation under a brilliant orange sky. A week ago Matt, Ethan and I scored a semi-secret spot just outside of L.A. on a Sunday with no one out. Even the local heckler, who told us to paddle down the beach, was eventually unfazed as our infectious enjoyment surely pacified any negative energy.
The fact is that the surf community does look out for each other. Look at the circumstances with any unfortunate run-in with sharks — people rush to each other's aid. Sure there are acts of aggression and occasionally the ugly side of staunch localism rears its head. But these instances are in the minority, and they by no means represent the community as a whole.
As Billabong famously says, "only a surfer knows the feeling". The surf community isn't just strong because we choose to be, we are also strong out of necessity. You can't reasonably refuse anyone else's right to enjoy riding waves; you're part of the same community whether you like it or not. They know that same feeling and share the same healthy addiction. I think all of us would do well to remember that.
Some time in the last few weeks I was extended an invitation to attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. While a friend assured me that all would be well, I have to admit I felt a little uneasy about intruding upon a space in which I may not be welcome. Luckily I couldn't have been more wrong. This opportunity gave me a valuable insight into observing a new and unfamiliar community and the lessons I learned will help to inform my future thinking about communities in a positive way.
There were around two hundred people crammed into a hall, and as the buzzing conversation subsided everyone was graciously welcomed. The speaker reminded everyone to exercise common courtesy to each other during the meeting before addressing some regular administrative issues.
What initially struck me was people's willingness to introduce themselves to each other, in a way that felt both genuine and without a common human tendency to pass judgement. I met the people around me, and they were curious as to my progress as a recovering alcoholic. I quickly explained my real motives for attending the meeting, and all were enthusiastic and welcoming in equal measure.
The hour-long meeting began with celebration of birthdays. Birthdays refer to milestones in a recovering alcoholic's journey, celebrating various increments of time: 30 days, 90 days, six months, one full year and so on. On the week I was there someone was celebrating their 47th birthday — a very humbling feat in itself. Each birthday announcement was followed by a short speech from the recipient. These orations ranged in length from ten words to two minutes. Every single speech reiterated the same conclusion: that these individuals would never have achieved their amazing feats of resilience and mental toughness without the support of their AA community.
The community they spoke of represented people from all walks of life; of all classes, races and religion. This was evident just by looking around. People had come together out of necessity and gained friendships, support and hope through shared experience. One thing was certain: they weren't going to forget how their community had changed their life forever.
These parallel experiences of community have proved to me the power of the collective. Many people dwell on the fact that in the United States things appear to be falling apart, due to the actions of their "Divider in chief". I don't wish to contend that there's a real concern there, but I think this causes many in American society to question whether it's better to act in the interests of themselves — the individual — or as part of a wider community. The actions of the powerful few wish to paint us as individuals in a struggle for success, or happiness, or whatever you want to call it. We must remember that we exist only in relationship and we must remember that communities — whether imposed upon us through necessity or created through a common desire — are the only way that we will continue to be human, in every sense of that word.