When I was 16 years old I went to Hawaii with my family. We stayed in a modest but clean hotel with easy access to the beach.
Because I hadn’t spent much time by the ocean I was hesitant to try surfing, but bodyboarding seemed learn-able so I made haste for the beachside rental shop and picked up some equipment.
A bodyboard is a small, somewhat rectangular floatation device that functions similarly to a surfboard; the boarder paddles out into the ocean and waits for a wave of suitable size to make an appearance. Then he faces the beach and propels himself in that direction while the wave approaches from the rear. If the boarder generates sufficient momentum the wave picks him up and sends him hurdling towards land in a rush of euphoria.
I had a limited grasp of these concepts as I took to the water for the first time. And I had absolutely no frame of reference with which to determine the size and power of the waves I was playing in; I would later learn that the beach was almost closed that day due to dangerously high waves.
So I headed out into the water with my bodyboard tethered to my ankle and my pale Yukon skin glowing like a beacon — alerting fellow beach-goers that I was a tourist in the truest sense of the word.
Predictably, I had limited success. Instead, I just bobbed around incompetently, and for the most part, that suited me fine.
Until a wave thundered down on my oblivious head.
I clearly remember the look of concern on my father’s face as he shouted my name. And then I was under.
The Pacific Ocean was exactly as indifferent to me as it would be to a piece of driftwood; and it turned my body into a rag doll, scraping me against its rocky floor before releasing its pressure and allowing me to drift upwards. When my head crested the waterline I had exactly enough time for one breath before the next wave pounded my powerless flesh back from whence it came.
It is the closest I have ever come to death.
Maybe I was able to scream for help, I don’t remember. Regardless, on one of my brief trips to the surface a saviour arrived in the form of a local Hawaiian kid who instructed me to latch onto his back. Once attached, he paddled me into shore, where I slithered onto the sand, threw up, passed out, and woke up with a fire-truck-red sunburn.
This experience profoundly affected me because it was the first time I was forced to acknowledge how little the world cared whether I lived or died.
Since then, I usually try to ignore this lesson; I usually undertake projects and hang around people who make me feel significant; I usually find this makes me happy(ish).
But when the pressure of building and maintaining my own sense of importance becomes too much to bear, it’s helpful to remember that day in Hawaii; sometimes reminding oneself of one’s fundamental insignificance is exactly what one needs to get a good night’s sleep.