It’s now been 3 ½ years since my accident, and as time marches on, I’ve been trying to make sense of my new identity. My son’s girlfriend, Kate, has only ever known me in my chair. To her, and to everyone I meet from here on in, I can only ever be an old man in a wheelchair. Jeremy was 16, and Jacob 13, but at the time of the accident Lachlan was 10. When he emerges into adulthood, what memories will inform the image he has of his father?
This begs the question of what is meant by identity. In previous generations, identity was a familial and communal concept – we understood ourselves (and were understood by others) as being sons and daughters, brothers and sisters – and members of a tribe, a province, a kingdom, a religion. This was sometimes oppressive, as individuals were trapped and controlled by their genealogies. But if modernity has meant freedom from such control, it has also left us bereft of the meanings and values that direct our life. In the place of family, we have come to understand ourselves by what we do. When we meet someone, we don’t care about their last name or ask about their parents but, rather, we want to know what they do for a living, for a sport, for entertainment.
In my mind, then, I’ve been a Christian scholar/surfer – and I have always been proud of the juxtaposition. What we expect of an academic, especially one who teaches (boring and abstract) theology, is a tweed jacket, confused fashion sense (sadly true of me), and someone who prefers chess to sport (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Being the egoist that I am, I’ve always loved the fact surfing shattered that expectation; so sport was central to my self-understanding (as it is to my parents and brothers). More than that, my identity as father and husband was also informed by my physicality in performing these roles. While I was never a successful handyman, I was at least a “lover and a fighter” – by which I mean to say my manhood could not be divorced from my strength. I was Elly’s “muscle”, and my boys partner in adventure (a fact that ultimately proved my own undoing).
So who am I without these things?
Actually, I’m not without these things. As Phil Smith notes, “we create stories in order to understand who we are, and what we are, and how we are, in the world (P. Smith 2013, 5).” Narrative informs personal identity by expressing our perceptions of the past and present, and capturing our hopes, fears, and vision for the future. So in telling my story, I’m reminding myself of who I am, not so that I can get depressed about a lost self, but so that I can take control of today, and make tomorrow meaningful.
Kate (and maybe Lachlan) will know little of the scholar/surfer, but I can still be more than just an old man in a chair. Of course I am that, but that’s not who I am. Make sense of that if you can.
Woken by my phone. It is a call from a bloke who contacted me out of the blue by e-mail on the weekend. He has the most fantastic voice. It is a deep and broad Aussie accent with the super-cool drawl of a surfer. Nic Gilmour lives in Coffs Harbour and heads up Christian surfers in the region. He also has an interest in theology and is completing a DMin with Gordon Conwell in the US. He wants to talk to me about his thesis, about my own books and articles as well as those from other Pentecostal/charismatic sources. We really have a lot in common and I enjoy the conversation. It brings to mind the e-mail correspondence from the weekend, which gave my wife and I are great laugh. Here is an extract from the second e-mail:
i feel a bit of a nong. just after emailing you i read your blog – including the post you linked below[I had sent him my post on the spirituality of surfing]. stupid of me to think you know something about a bloke when all you’ve seen is him standing there talking out of the TV [he had watched some theology lectures of mine preaccident].
i’m bummed that we won’t get to surf together – this side of the line. truly. i’d guessed you surfed (the O&E shirt gave you away – laughed at the irony – what’s your religion!?), and i thought to myself at the time something like ‘halle-frikkin-lujah, at last! someone who seems like a good bloke who’s a surfer and a not-half-shoddy theolog and an Aussie and a penti and probably isn’t a paid member of the Fred Nile party”. i know you’re still the above. maybe surfing is like alcoholism eh – you’re never cured from it. anyhow, i felt like Manni from IceAge who finds that other mammoth.
and then you selfishly went and broke your neck. bloody hell!
ok, embarrassment dealt with. you probably get that kind of thing a lot eh. if i was you i’d play on it – it offers untold comedic material.
anyhow – regarding the other stuff – epic. i’ll follow it up over the weekend. and thanks for your thesis.
This seriously is one of the best e-mails I’ve ever received. Chatted for a while but I had to go – class in the afternoon.
Needed to get from Alphacrucis College in Parramatta to Hillsong in Baulkham Hills. While Hillsong runs a substantive vocational level training program, Alphacrucis teaches it its degree programme on this site – taking students who want to continue the studies begun with Hills. To get there I had to ride up to the Parramatta bus interchange. The T 62 is a bright yellow bus. As the driver pulls up the entire left side of the bus is lowered on some type of air filled suspension system (actually, I have no idea how it works, but that is how it sounds). A ramp is lowered and I scoot onto the bus to the handicapped section. I am required to face backwards (safety reasons) and so I have the opportunity to look at the faces of all the passengers. Immediately in front of me is a young girl (sadly, early 20s now seems young to me) wearing a deep purple flowered lace top. Unusual but pretty. She gives me a smile which is better then the more common averting of eyes. And who can complain of a smile from a young woman, even if I know it is not my hunky looks that have attracted her attention. After that, however, it is a bit uncomfortable. It really is easier to stare at the back of people’s heads, rather than being forced to lock eye contact with complete strangers. As I am writing this diary enty my wife suggests that I should have looked out the window but my ability to turn my neck and body to the side is limited. Instead I tilt my chair back a little and pretend to sleep (another nifty advantage of a chair). Trip takes about 35 min.
My wife and I have just finished watching the surfing documentary, Lost Prophets: Search for the Collective. It is the story of a group of surfers trying to escape the commercialism and competitivism of modern surfing (represented by corporate brands and immensely wealthy sports stars) in the pursuit of a more spiritual and prayerful surfing culture. It is the idea that surfing is about the joy of connecting with the ocean, of enjoying adventure, and of appreciating both the solitude of nature and the communal sharing of one’s passion – surfers can share a unique connection to waves and to each other.
My own childhood is filled with rich memories, many of them related to surfing. My first board was a single fin with the brand “Shane” emblazoned on its bottom, recovered from under a neighbour’s caravan while camping. I was joined by my brother Daniel and our friend Cameron long and we spent hours in what seemed like monstrous waves at Currarong (South Coast New South Wales) but which I now know to be mere ripples. Returning home to Berry (north of Nowra), we would catch the 5:15 AM train to Werri Beach at Gerringong. These were the days before swell and the wind information were available on the net, so we would head off with no idea whether or not we would get any waves. The train station at Gerringong is on the other side of the hill, and we would lug our boards to the beach often arriving before the sun had risen. It was a feeling of immense anticipation, hearing the sound of waves and waiting to see what the sun would reveal. Even the disappointment of small onshore slop didn’t stop us getting wet.
Sometimes we would wake up the taxi driver to drive us to the neighbouring Geroa Beach. The poor bloke was amazingly generous to us hooligans, who had forced him out of bed and piled into his car, surfboards on our laps and sticking out the window. Some weekends we camped at the beach. Matthew Wright and Shane Murphy (where are these guys now?) were with me one time where there was no surf on the day we arrived. That night we lit a bonfire and sacrificed a can of baked beans to Hughie, the God of the waves. The next morning we had pumping surf – and I’m not sure what theological conclusions we can draw from that!
One weekend, in celebration of the end of the school year, I went camping at caves beach with Matthew, Shane and Mark Mulverhill. Mark was not a surfer but came along for the ride, taking to the waves with a boogie board. The swell was huge and a rip was running from the beach out to the point (pictured below). The rip was surprisingly strong and while those of us on surfboards could negotiate the current, Mark struggled, and before long found himself being washed out to sea. Before any of us could do anything about it he had been sucked around the headland and was being pummelled by waves perilously close to the rocks. There was little we could do, and as he was dragged and smashed along we honestly thought he was going to die. One of us (Matthew I think) went to find the police while Shane and I ran along the head land watching in mute horror. The matter was eventually resolved when the tide carried him around the head land to a neighbouring beach – a journey that Google Earth tells me is only 700 m but that seemed much longer. We rushed out and gave each other teary hugs. I suspect Mark has not spent much time in the surf will since.
The day before my wedding I went surfing with my brothers. I fell and smashed my back on the fin of my board and I still have a scar to remember the day. This became for us a tradition; something we had to do before each of our weddings. My surfing adventures slowed with my move to Sydney. I lived inland and could not deal with the crowds at Sydney beaches. In recent years I took up the sport again with vigour.
I purchased myself a long board (mal) and this made paddling easier for my “old man” body. I guess this made me a traitor to the younger short- board self but it gave me the opportunity to take a more mellow approach to the waves. On 7 October 2010 I went for a surf at Culburra with my son. There was a good size swell and an offshore breeze and I had three hours of exhilarating joy in the waves. At three o’clock that same afternoon I broke my neck and became a quadriplegic.
Watching the documentary and thinkiong of surfing as a spiritual adventure was something of a challenge. My wife got teary and gave me a hug. I certainly miss the surf – and golf and all the other things go with a body that works. Perhaps more significantly, I regret that I did not make the most of my former opportunities. In the busyness of life I didn’t surf enough. I didn’t pursue the fullness of the spiritual connection with the waves and nature and God at work in and through these things. More than just finding God at church, I think we experience life in the Spirit when we find beauty and when we take the opportunity to glory in its wonder. I found that beauty in surfing, but I just didn’t surf enough. Of course I did other things of greater value – loved my wife and raised kids – but I still think I failed to make the most of the blessings of the ocean. And now the time has passed. Such is life for each one of us at some point so don’t feel sorry for me. instead, examine your own life. Slow down. Discover your passion and enjoy its wonder with friends.
Ecclesiastes 11:7-10 (The Message version)
Oh, how sweet the light of day,
And how wonderful to live in the sunshine!
Even if you live a long time, don’t take a single day for granted.
Take delight in each light-filled hour,
Remembering that there will also be many dark days
And that most of what comes your way is smoke.
9 You who are young, make the most of your youth.
Relish your youthful vigor.
Follow the impulses of your heart.
If something looks good to you, pursue it.
But know also that not just anything goes;
You have to answer to God for every last bit of it.
10 Live footloose and fancy-free—
You won’t be young forever.
Youth lasts about as long as smoke.