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If a Wave Breaks in the Woods

Was it really better yesterday if no one was there to surf it?

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My alarm snaps me out of sleep and I know I have to get down to the beach fast. The conditions are almost right, and I have only a small window. Yesterday, when I checked it before supper, the swell was there, the tide was almost there, but the wind was onshore. This morning, though, I can hear the train from the mainland, which means that the wind’s dead. 

I shove my glasses on my face, sneak past the crib and out of the bedroom, and press the button for the garage door. The rusty, jangly thing grumbles as it lifts. I step over my bike, pushing and pedaling down the driveway, then across the street and toward the beach. 

As I’m biking, I check all my wind signs. The neighbor’s flag is slack. The tips of the palm trees aren’t moving. I can hear a dog’s bark in that clear, glassy way. 

But as I get closer, I hear the wrong noise from the ocean itself. It’s a loud inhale followed by a thwap—the sound of the swell hitting the beach straight. I walk my bike up the sand while lowering my expectations. The sun hasn’t even risen over the horizon, but I’ve seen enough. 

Artwork: Georgia O’Keeffe (American, 1887–1986), Series I—No. 3, 1918, oil on board, 20 × 16 inches (50.8 × 40.64 centimeters), Milwaukee Art Museum, gift of Jane Bradley Pettit Foundation and the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, M1997.192. Photographed by Larry Sanders. © Milwaukee Art Museum

I look at the tides on my phone, confirming what I already know. It would’ve been perfect at around 3:13 a.m. But now? Mid tide and rising. Useless to me, a surfing human animal who’d woken up hopeful. By the time it drops to low in the afternoon, that onshore wind will be ruining it. 

As I head home to get ready for work, I ask myself what most surfers have asked themselves at some point: How many good sessions have I missed because conditions were perfect in the middle of the night? 

And that question only leads to others: How many perfect days went to waste at this beach before Homo sapiens knew how to surf? How many fickle, weird, or undiscovered breaks exist on this planet that are lighting up right now—but there’s no one there to surf them? What were the surf breaks like on Pangaea, back when our continents were still connected? Before the existence of life on our planet, were all those perfect waves going to waste? And what about when there are no more sentient beings on this planet—will all the waves be going to waste then? 

I get a sort of angry, lustful pain in my chest when I think about it. It’s a similar feeling to being on a family vacation near a new stretch of coastline and having to ogle the waves without being able to surf them yourself. 

While these might sound like the trifling questions of a greedy surfer, I’m really seriously wondering: Is a perfect wave still perfect if there’s no one there to surf it? 

My immediate, instinctual answer is no, obviously not. It’s only once I check the surf and see that conditions are right—and especially if it’s not crowded and I’ve got no obligations—that I’ve just got to paddle out. 

But my instinctual evaluation commits the error of assuming I’ve been to the beach and seen it’s good. To truly answer the question, you have to zoom out one more layer—which is a central point to the work of South African philosopher David Benatar. In his book Better Never to Have Been, Benatar explores what a planet is like with and without sentient life, plus the importance of separating value judgments made from the perspective of existence versus from the perspective of nonexistence. Key to his work is what he’s identified as an “asymmetry between pain and pleasure.” 

Benatar writes, “It is uncontroversial to say that (1) the presence of pain is bad, and that (2) the presence of pleasure is good. However, such a symmetrical evaluation does not seem to apply to the absence of pain and pleasure, for it strikes me as true that (3) the absence of pain is good, even if that good is not enjoyed by anyone, whereas (4) the absence of pleasure is not bad unless there is somebody for whom this absence is deprivation.”

This asymmetry intuitively makes a lot of sense to me as a surfer. Benatar is saying in (1) and (2) that the worst pains are much worse than the best pleasures are good. To the surfer, (1) is easily confirmed, since surfing brings all sorts of pain—from large-scale pains, like missed sessions due to responsibilities, to small-scale annoyances during a session itself, like the wind switching unexpectedly, or missing a great wave. In fact, I feel like every surfer is way more familiar with the numerous types of discomfort within our aquatic pursuit than they are with the small amount of ecstasy that it can also bring. Every surfer knows what it’s like to get skunked. No surfer I’ve ever met is out there having chronic perfect sessions. 

In his writing, Benatar illustrates this point by asking: Would you take ten minutes of the best pleasure imaginable if it meant you had to sit through ten minutes of the worst pain imaginable? When he poses this question, it’s purely hypothetical. But as surfers, we perform this calculation in actuality every time we check the waves. Depending on where we are around the globe, we all have our own scale of how much discomfort we’re willing to put up with to justify paddling out and chasing the pleasure that could result. 

But then, of course, there’s the presence of pleasure (2), and when it comes to actually riding waves, the pleasure can be pretty good. 

Turning to (3) and (4), much of Benatar’s writing is devoted to showing how the absence of pain is good, even when there’s nobody to appreciate it, and the absence of pleasure is not too bad when there’s nobody who’s missing out on the pleasure.

He notes how we’re sad when we hear about the “inhabitants of a foreign land whose lives are characterized by suffering, [but] when we hear that some island is unpopulated, we are not similarly sad for the happy people who, had they existed, would have populated this island. Nobody really mourns for those who do not exist on Mars….[And the fact] that most people do not even think about the absent lives on Mars is itself revealing. Once forced to think about these issues, some will claim that they regret absent Martian pleasure….It is curious, however, how some people will begin to say that they do feel sorry for the absent Martians once they realize that not doing so supports [the] asymmetry.” 

While Benatar doesn’t write about surfing, I find that the surfer’s intuition actually supports, rather than contradicts, his points about both (3) and (4). For example, let’s say an old friend visits. The swell’s really good and you want to paddle out. However, your friend’s spent a lot of money on his plane ticket, and you can’t just ditch him for half the weekend. Do you suit him up, throw him on a soft top, and invite him out to surf with you if he’s never shown an interest in wanting to surf? Of course not. You know how miserable that experience would be for him. And the absence of that lame first session in unfriendly surf is good for him, even if he doesn’t know it. Plus, since he doesn’t know how fun surfing could be for him when it’s good and he’s competent at it, he’s not missing out on anything pleasurable by not trying it for the first time. 

So if we really think that non-surfers are missing out on a ton of absent pleasure in their lives, and that this is bad for them even though they don’t know about it, we’d be out there actively trying to bring new surfers into our lineups. 

Before the existence of life on our planet, were all those perfect waves going to waste?

Finally, Benatar’s fourth point in the asymmetry is supported in a unique way by one of surfing’s strange paradoxes. Namely, when we’re experiencing the most pleasure that surfing can bring, the mind and body drop away, leaving the surfer as humanly close to nonexistence as possible during life. Call it a flow state, being in the zone, non-duality, or whatever. When it’s just you on a perfect wave, the “you” kind of dissolves, doesn’t it? It’s only before and after the wave that the “you” is strongly there, in expectation or reflection. 

So, even if I could have magically had the 3:13 a.m. surf all to myself, in a totally empty lineup, when I caught a good wave I’d be forgetting I existed during the individual waves of that session. And that would paradoxically be as close as it could feel to the way a perfect, empty, undiscovered lineup would feel. My guess is that’s probably how it “felt” for the planet back in Pangaea’s days, or how my local break “felt” before humans were here to surf it. 

So was it actually better yesterday, even if there was no one who knew about it? My answer, along with Benatar’s, is yes—as long as you didn’t know about it and if the lineup was completely empty. However, the answer automatically becomes no as soon as someone tells you it was better yesterday. 

This is kind of weird to think about, that the empty lineup at 3:13 a.m. with nobody awake to check it or even know about it is perfect in the same way as if I had somehow been able to surf it all by myself. The waves become “wasted” only when I wake up, check it, and start commodifying the natural world through Benatar’s lens.

Maybe these are just the self-conciliatory thoughts of someone who’s bummed the tide was wrong, or who feels global-level FOMO when he thinks about all the unridden perfect waves that must be rifling off at this very instant. But I find it sort of relaxing to think that those unridden waves are just as perfect—or enjoyed, or loved—in the same way as they are when I get lucky myself and dissolve into a good one.