We stood on the darkening beach at Waianae. The college students for whom I had come to lead music played and laughed in the evening Pacific breeze. Rising up from southern deeps, the blue waves blackened as the light of the sunset faded. The water grew bold whitecaps upon nearing the beach. Still, it had been a long day of work, and the people deserved a chance to play. Sand, ocean, and salt air—the poetry of elements wrought its relief upon us.
The boys waded out into the surf, inviting me along.
“Scrum down!” yelled Kasprzak beside me.
I could barely hear him over the waves. The water sucked at our legs, drawing us by inches toward the unknowable sea.
“What?” I yelled back.
The students were all from an affluent section of town, where rugby commands are strangely normative. Kasprzak threw an arm over my shoulder and bent his knees.
“Like this!” he said.
Eight of us scrummed down, facing an oncoming wave. The gravity of the great billow drew the water from around our feet and into itself. For a moment, we stood on nothing but damp sand while the wave piled up before us, dark and shimmering and over twice our height. We tightened our bare shoulders together and braced our legs. I felt the thrill of inevitability. Something was going to happen to us, and nobody quite knew what.
It is a strange thing how we seek the mystical experience of fear in a society so obsessed with denying it. Flaunting a skin-deep courage, we love vertiginous mountain views, oceans, the Grand Canyon, storms, giant predators, meteors, explosions, and 24-hour newscasts. We seem bent on enjoying anything that spells death. Perhaps our fear-quest is merely a species of derivation. After all, roller coasters have safety bars. The Grand Canyon even has handrails. Handrails, on eons-old cliffs! It isn’t that we want to be safe per se. We are safer staying at home. We want to edge near enough to see what might happen. We want to perch on the rim of the mile-deep canyon or stand in the shark cage—all without falling or being eaten. We have an attraction to things that could kill us, but don’t. In seeking the authentic experience of fear, you could say we’re chasing mercy.
Mercy is gentleness from a mighty hand. When the judge hands down community service and restorative justice, when the hospital forgives the enormous bill, when the man with all the money does not force people off of the land, when the passerby takes time for the beggar—mercy is at work in these. Someone hangs by a tenuous thread over the flames, and only gentleness stands in the way of just wrath or unjust self-interest. We’re drawn to stand before this kind of juxtaposition. What might happen carries a certain kind of weight, because it doesn’t happen.
Facing a wall of opaque water comes near to the same fancies. Nothing but the unseen—call it providence, causality, or stupid luck—prevented a thousand dire scenarios on the beach that evening. I’m ashamed to say that, as a middle-class American, perhaps I require these Jack London style confrontations to shake loose my self-confident underpinnings. The elemental forces of nature care nothing for us, yet to face them is not to face chaos. If the earth kills you, it does not do so out of abnormality. The elements, inscrutable though they may be, still obey fixed laws greater than themselves. Such structure implies intention and personality, which means that if good befalls me in such a powerful dynamo as our universe, it is not chance that made it so, but mercy. Something, or someone, could have killed me, but didn’t.
Furthermore, there is a subtext to this mortal standoff. If I pit myself against the wilderness, part of me asks the question: “Who am I?” The only answer given by the mountains, stars, and seas is: “Whoever you are, you are small—and alive.” It is not a complete response by any stretch, but it is enough revelation to get one out the door after more.
The wave hit us with a force I didn’t believe at first. I didn’t feel any pain, only the power of the thing. Kasprzak disappeared from beside me, along with everyone else. We tumbled in the water’s choreography, losing all direction. I held my breath, flailing with closed eyes and wondering when and where I would surface. I felt like a penny. Occasionally, my shoulder or knee would scuff along the bottom before I was picked up and flipped again. I had no sense of time or distance. I heard the growling, tympanic swish of the water, as if I was caught inside a piston of the planet’s aqueous engine. Everything around me was dark, and I was alive.