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Columns

Surfing and Suffering: Late Night Conversations about Mental Health

By James M. Heffernan, Contributing Opinion Writer
James M. Heffernan ’24’s column appears on alternate Thursdays.

In this column, one thing I have mentioned, but not emphasized enough, is the value of having conversations about mental health. So, when I suddenly remembered that I needed to write the last piece for my column while over at my friend’s house on Sunday evening, I decided to ask the guys I was with a few questions about mental health — feeling like it was an appropriate way to wrap things up. And I learned more than a few things as they answered my questions (perhaps, most notably, how a few drinks could turn them into “surfer-bros”).

While Covid-19 has been a major annoyance and a detriment to the mental health of myself and the rest of the student population, it hasn’t been much of an issue for these mates of mine. Although we’ve had the luxury of living in New Zealand, where there have been fewer lockdowns and overall cases than many other countries, through our conversation, I’ve come to believe that regardless of the public health situation, these guys would’ve been equally unaffected.

Their secret is simple: surfing.

In my first column piece, I talked about the value of having a hobby during Covid. While surfing is exactly that, it also represents what I warned against. When I described what kind of hobby you should look for, I said the goal shouldn’t be to improve yourself or to achieve something, or else it isn’t any different from half the things we do as university students. But, to an extent, surfing is about both of these things. You improve your skill and fitness for the goal of — what one of my friends called, rather poetically, for someone whose eyelids were drooping — a “brief moment of tranquility.”

As long as they’re able to surf, I feel like these guys could weather almost anything, despite surfing breaking the rules I set for a good hobby to preserve your mental health. It doesn’t shock me that I wasn’t completely right — but still, what did I miss? As we talked more, I began to understand it had nothing to do with surfing.

When I asked my mates if they’d ever experienced a lot of “mental pain” or discomfort, one explained his approach, sharing the fairly uncontroversial opinion that focusing on mental pain is not helpful. But something I had not thought about before, was his reason for why: “You’re in it already.”

This was a strange reason to me. My attitude toward mental pain in my life has always been something I need to escape from, that I need to climb out of before it gets worse. I’d never considered resigning to mental discomfort as a way of moving on, only as a way of making things worse.

“If something has the potential to mentally hurt me, I don't shy away from it. Same when I’m surfing big waves. Preemptively, I notice them and I see them coming at me, but if I’m sitting there, nothing else is going through my mind, I’m just going to go up to it and surf it like any other wave. I won’t be scared because I’ll just be experiencing it,” he said.

The interesting part of this statement was not the method he uses to deal with mental pain, as I think this can differ for everyone. Rather, it was the conceptualization of mental pain implied in him comparing mental pain — something we attempt to actively avoid — to the sensation of riding a big wave, something that surfers like himself crave. I think many people, including myself, stand to benefit from seeing mental pain in a similar way.

These guys will surf for hours hoping to catch one of those big waves, and when one approaches, they have every reason to be scared. Likewise, you can’t avoid mental pain in your life. But then, the wave arrives, and the anticipation goes away. Now you’re in it. Sure, you can abandon the board and jump into the water — or, you could just treat it as another experience, another moment of the many that compose our lives.

We already do this every time we watch a sad movie, fully aware that it will have this effect but watching it anyway. We know that these negative emotions are part of the experience, and part of what makes the movie good — why should our attitude towards life be any different?

Maybe this wouldn’t be true if negative emotions were completely avoidable. But they aren’t. Accepting their inevitability and trying to experience them, — keeping in mind that the wave will pass and that negative emotions are part of what makes life what it is — is a better approach than avoiding and denying mental pain to no avail.

Without this conversation with my mates, I’m not sure I would have arrived at the conclusion that we can treat negative emotions the same way you would a sad movie or big wave. When I put it like that it seems absurd. Nonetheless, what I think this shows is that open conversations about mental health are a worthwhile endeavor: I learned more about those guys, as well as myself, through my ideas about mental health being challenged.

When the freshmen from the Class of 2024 arrive on campus, I hope that Zoom habits won’t endure. I hope communicating with each other will not seem as arbitrary as it has over a year in which we’ve learned each other’s names and faces without learning who anyone is. I hope in the place of these habits, we create a student culture where conversations like this are the norm.

James M. Heffernan ’24’s column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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