Surf lessons

"Surf lessons" on coast surf...large waves

I love the ocean.

I love the sounds of the waves, and the vastness of the sea.  I love how small it makes me feel…the things I fuss about melt away when I am reminded of how big the world really is.

I travelled to the ocean recently. The ability to travel to the ocean, to sit by its edge and to float on its depths is an opportunity I don’t take lightly.  Ocean-time is a gift that re-centers me, and helps me remember what is important.  It’s often where I do my best thinking about who I am, and what I want to do…I set life goals at the ocean.

The ocean is powerful and wonderful.

The ocean reminds me of important things and gives me perspective on life that I carry with me.

I began to realize that I learnt to do with the waves what my clients have taught me about dealing with life-waves.  Clients talk through their frustrations and griefs and challenges–small, big and torrential–with me. Clients are my teachers about dealing with the waves life gives us–surf lessons!

1. Ocean waters with little wind still have waves.  There is no escaping the waves of life.

The waves are relentless…on windy days bigger, on calmer days, smaller.  But waves are always present.

Life always has waves doesn’t it?

Life throws stuff at us constantly.  Even during the calm times:

  • kids are still having tantrums, and
  • we need to get milk and bread even tho it’s minus 87 with the windchill, and
  • the car needs gas (again!) and
  • a JTM forgot until just this moment that he needs a ____ for TODAY.

The calmest days still have waves that push and pull…that tap us gently off our centre.

Sometimes, after a rough patch, we wait for things to calm.  We want a time of nothing. Clients have taught me that even in the calm and good times, life happens…and part of enjoying a calm stretch is realizing the necessity of absorbing the relentless and inevitable stuff of life.

2. Every once in a great while, a monster wave comes along that you didn’t prepare for.  And that doesn’t mean you’re a failure.  It means life happened. You can’t always prepare for each wave.

There’s no way to maintain our position in place when a surge overtakes us, especially unexpectedly.

The huge surge that is out of proportion to the rest of them.  The magnitude of  it is so much higher than the rest. It comes out of nowhere.

  • A job is lost…especially hurtful when it happens unfairly–you know they took the boss’ side without really taking time to understand you
  • A spouse dies…your companion in life is gone
  • A faithful partner is suddenly not faithful and the vows on which you based your life aren’t solid anymore.
  • A child has an illness that may prove fatal

These are like thunderous walls of water that simply wipe your feet out from under you.  There’s no standing, even off balance.  These don’t come often, but when they do, life as normal doesn’t work either.

I got hit by one or two of those waves at the ocean.  Water went up my nose and I sputtered and coughed.  I floundered in the water as I got thoroughly knocked off my feet. It took me a bit to get my bearings. My family nearby who were less affected by it, extended their hands toward me. I paddled towards shallower water where my feet could touch the ground.

So often, I’m amazed by how clients get completely knocked around by a tragedy, sometimes tragedy upon tragedy. They accept that life is not normal and won’t ever be…and a new normal that doesn’t look anything like the old normal will slowly evolve.

These clients allow themselves to feel the flounder.  They look to others to steady them, knowing they can’t do it themselves. They understand that sleep disturbances and forgetting things are normal.  They don’t shame themselves for feeling overwhelmed…they don’t freak out over freaking out. They don’t panic when they miss an event, or when they cry in the middle of a store.

They don’t beat themselves up for losing their balance, because they know that is just what happens when you get wolloped by

3. The retreating waves can unexpectedly pull you in with surprising power.  You can’t always predict where the forces will come from.

I forgot about the power of the retreating waves until I was at the ocean again this year.  At times, I’m knee deep in water with the waves coming up to my waist repeatedly…and then, weirdly, the water retreats…and it pulls back into the ocean powerfully.   Suddenly I’m ankle deep (if I’m still upright). It’s the unexpected, harsh and sudden pull from behind that catches me by surprise.

My clients sometimes tell me about the way life has of creating unusual and unexpected pull into struggle.

  • A new mom who loves her baby more than life itself struggles with the loss of sleep, relentless use of her breasts for feeding, and the inability to plan more than 90 minutes ahead
  • A new groom who loves his bride and loves being married, suddenly feels resentful by the constant presence of his new spouse, the demands of sharing the sink, and sharing budgeting decisions.

It’s powerful to explore the hidden pull into struggle when good things happen, to create space for the disconcerting imbalancing effect that happens when painful changes occur inside and alongside delightful life choices.

It’s cool when clients are able to recognize the hidden and unexpected losses that are at the back end of a wonderful adventure in life, and are able to acknowledge the struggle amidst the good.

4. Handling the waves is a combination of rolling with their momentum as well as leaning in to resist being dominated.

My family and I enjoyed spending long stretches of time in the ocean. We had remarkable discussions about life and dreams and ideas just at the limit of where we could stand.  We’d  hang out , bobbing up and down for long stretches. It was a delightful pleasure to feel the waves and enjoy them.

We allowed them to influence us, without completely directing us.  We would lean into them so as to not be swept too deep or taken back to shore before we were ready, but readily feel their power.

To choose to stand in the same spot in the ocean is folly–it can’t be done.  You simply can’t lock your knees and decide you won’t be moved. The water’s movement is too strong. To choose to stand in the same spot is to be set up to fail.

Why is it that folks think they can ignore the tragedy in their life, and insist it won’t affect them?

At the ocean, we moved collaboratively with the water, cooperating with it while also making choices about how to shape the direction with our own powerful arms and legs.

I watch clients navigate the tumultuous waves life throws at them in a similar way…the ones who get through the hard times don’t pretend the difficulties aren’t there.  They are wise enough to look straight at the challenges to be influenced by them.  They allow themselves to be moved, to be impacted…but yet not swept away either. The huge impact of adversity doesn’t ultimately dictate what happens.  They choose their response.

It’s beautiful to watch clients be mindfully influenced by waves of adversity in ways that shape them into stronger, more connected people.


  • Susanne Martin

    I happened upon your conversation on CJOB today and was moved by your understanding of life and allowing yourself to learn through your clients experiences. My son has been struggling with the loss of his girlfriend by suicide and has incredible waves of depression try to drag him out to sea. Him, being a caregiver, has taken the act as something he could have changed had he been more aware, if only….I will share this particular blog with him because life is full of waves and acknowledging them is step one, not letting them pull you in is step two and realizing you are not alone is the final step towards peace. So, thank you.

    • Carolyn Klassen

      Susanne…thank you so much for your thoughtful comments and level of understanding of what I was trying to say. You really got it…I can see the way you hurt for your son, as he hurts from the loss. It’s beautiful to witness people engaging in the struggle to love and support each other in difficult circumstances.

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