When I was little, whenever I had a fever I would have recurring nightmares of giant waves. They would be cartoonishly huge tsunamis, big enough to swallow an entire city, and usually I would wake up just as they were towering over me, about to break. Sometimes I would actually get caught up in the rush of the wave, and feel myself being dragged along for miles in the water. I remember dreading going to sleep when I was sick, because I could feel that I was going to have the same dream again.
I’ve often wondered what might have been the significance of my early fear of waves. In fact, my exaggerated fear of waves and water manifested itself from the time I was a toddler on forwards. When my family went to the beach, I was not one of those cherubic young children who would splash and play in the waves unselfconsciously, like a toddler in an Edwardian painting. In keeping with the difficult child I generally was (or so my mom likes to remind me), I would scream, scrunch up my face in the bright sunlight, insist on being positioned on my beach blanket with my back turned towards the offending ocean, and become completely distraught if the wind blew in my face. My aunt recalls that, as a toddler, I seemed to think that the wind and waves were specifically designed to offend me, and me alone.
Going to the beach was not a negotiable with my family, who were seashore-loving Marylanders from several generations back. They were the kind of family who, during their get-togethers, would cover the dining-room table with old newspapers, boil a pot of hardshell crabs, and spend the evening hammering and dissecting them with clinical precision in order to get to the tender meat inside. As a child, I could never quite emulate the aplomb with which my mother would scoop out a crab’s innards. There was even an island on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Tilghman Island, named for my family’s ancestors, using the antiquated Elizabethan form of our name.
My five siblings and I all take after one or the other of two dramatically different sets of genetic traits. Three of them are blond-haired and tan easily to a nice, even golden-brown, like some Germanic peasant ancestor of ours who spent her lifetime out in the fields of Alsace-Lorraine. The other three, including myself, have brown hair and a pinkish, freckly, Boreal complexion which turns red with sunburn if we even think of the beach. One of my sisters and I are roughly tied for the most accomplished generator of sunburns. Whenever my family went to the beach, while my parents and my more sun-amenable siblings frolicked in the water, I would sit itchily on the sand and inevitably forget to apply sunscreen to some small triangle-shaped patch on my back, which would then turn an angry purplish-red. To lessen my enjoyment of the ocean still further, I had glasses from the time I was very small, which would become smeared with sunscreen and encrusted with sand, forming a very imperfect lens through which to view the beautiful sea and sky.
Now, on the other hand, I love the ocean. Gradually, when I was a teenager, the roar and hiss of the surf stopped being terrifying to me and started to become exhilarating, although sometimes, when I fell asleep on the beach, I would still start awake out of an unsettling dream. Maybe I just outgrew my childhood fears. Discovering contact lenses and spray-on sunscreen probably helped as well. Sometimes I would deliberately make myself uncomfortable by imagining that the sparkles of the water in front of me were actually the far-away glimmers of the ocean’s surface over my head, as I lay on the bottom. I would dive underneath the waves when the ocean was rough, and let it toss me around.
Nevertheless, to this day, I still have the occasional tsunami-related nightmare. Sometimes it happens when I’m sick, but more often it happens when I’m worried about something, or feel overwhelmed. After all, fear of the ocean isn’t completely irrational, but springs from a healthy respect for the forces of nature. The ocean is seductive, unpredictable, uncontrollable. It pulls people away from the shore in rip currents and drowns them, even while the sun is shining and the wind is gentle.
The ocean is uncontrollable, just as much in life is uncontrollable. That’s really the heart of my fear. I’ve always been a bit of a worrier, and tend to fall into the illusion that if I plan things enough, and double-check them, then I’ll be safe. I always found sayings relating to acceptance in life, like “just be,” or “ride the waves,” somewhat impenetrable. What’s the point of just accepting and going along with things, I would think, confusing acceptance with passivity. I’ll never accomplish anything or be anything that way. Besides, some waves are just too big to ride, and if I try, I’ll drown. And so, I rebelled, kicked and screamed, and generally tried to go against the grain of everything. My rebellious period was a little later than most people’s, in my early twenties rather than in my teens, as it sometimes happens with cautious, responsible oldest children who tend to repress things.
Ironically, it was through jiu jitsu, an activity I originally took up as an outlet for my excess aggression, that I began to grasp the value of acceptance, and began to see that riding the waves wasn’t the same as being overwhelmed by them.
Comparisons between jiu jitsu and surfing abound, especially because many great jiu jitsu players surf as well. It’s easy to see the similarity- surfers ride waves that are big enough to smash them and smother them, using their skills to stay just out of harm’s way. Jiu jitsu players (particularly smaller practicioners like myself, heh) are always trying to flow along with their opponent’s push and pull, riding their opponent’s aggression instead of being caught and smashed, which is what will happen if I try to meet a larger opponent head-on. Instead of swimming against the stream, you’re swimming with the stream. This doesn’t mean you’re being passive, however, as anyone who has caught and tapped a larger opponent can attest.
When I first got into jiu jitsu, I often caught myself wishing that I was stronger, had better cardio, or was a faster learner. At the same time, in my personal life, I was harboring a lot of resentment over events in my teenage and college years. If only I hadn’t had certain experiences, I would lament, then I’d be happy. I was attempting to control what couldn’t be controlled.
Maybe another metaphor works better for you, but I find that the ocean’s waves are the perfect representation of the uncontrollable and unpredictable in life. Part of me will always worry- it’s a pretty inherent tendency in my nature- but nowadays I’m more curious about where the next wave will take me.