All of us have imagined futures we watch disintegrate. Some futures erode slowly, like a river wearing down a bank; others crumble quickly, like a sandcastle struck by a wave. The pandemic forced us to let go of imagined futures, but pandemic aside, we’re constantly relinquishing the future. A divorce ends a marriage that was supposed to last a lifetime. A miscarriage leaves a nursery wall painted pastel, but for what? Our broken existence rips the future out of our hands and leaves our fists clenched around futures that will no longer be.
Some time ago, I took surfing lessons on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The first two lessons in the fluffy white water gave me the impression I knew what I was doing. The third lesson crushed me.
During the third lesson, the goal was to catch green waves—waves at their peak, which haven’t broken yet. My instructor, Roberto, sat me and the other student down on the sand and talked us through how to paddle and how to turtle roll when you can’t get on top of a cresting wave. Turtle rolling requires hopping off your board, flipping the board over, and holding onto the nose of the board while the wave crashes over you. Then you flip the board back over, hop on, and keep paddling. It’s as exhausting as it sounds.
With my adrenaline pumping, I followed Roberto into the water. He called out instructions as we paddled over, turtle rolled, and made it out past the break to the flat place where the waves gently roll in.
After a few minutes, Roberto pointed out a wave for me to catch. He pushed my board as a hill of water you could sled down moved towards me. I felt the power of the water and popped up. I rode the wave part of the way in and paddled back out to Roberto to celebrate my first ride. I caught another wave and rode this one into the sand. Exhausted, I sat down on the beach. My shoulders burned. My neck was tight and my arms hung limp. I was 25 minutes into a two hour lesson.
Eventually, I picked up my board and started paddling out towards Roberto, some couple hundred yards out beyond the break. When you’re an experienced surfer, you wait for the right time to paddle out. I quickly found myself turtle rolling, scrambling to stay on my board. My muscles ached. I let my arms sag in the water in between waves. I was over halfway out to Roberto, but a big set was rolling in. I turtle rolled but lost my board and got pulled under; my adrenaline shifted to panic. I regained my board and paddled furiously. Another wave was coming in. I waved and yelled towards Roberto. Another wave crushed me. I couldn’t get out and because of where I was, I couldn’t get in.
Seeing me struggling, Roberto paddled over to me. “Breathe,” he said. “You need to breathe. You’re fine. Just breathe.”
“I need to get in,” I yelled over the waves.
“No,” he said confidently. “You need to breathe.”
“Okay,” I nodded, trying to deepen my breath. Another wave was coming in.
“Paddle forward,” Roberto instructed calmly. I paddled over the wave.
“Now breathe,” he said again. I clung onto my surfboard and caught my breath. A set of waves was building. It was too close to paddle over. “What should I do?” I asked as my breath shortened.
“Let go of your surfboard,” Roberto said.
I looked at Roberto with wide eyes. My surfboard was keeping me afloat.
“Like, just let it go behind me?” I asked.
“Just let it go,” he confirmed.
I let the surfboard float behind me, tethered to my leg. I faced the wave and dove under it. I waited to feel my leg yanked under the water, but there was only a gentle tug. I came up and looked at Roberto. I breathed. Another wave came and I dove under again.
We floated together between sets. Roberto looked over at me and said, “You are holding onto your surfboard like you need it to survive. But you don’t need it. It needs you. You are fine.”
I felt my body bobbing in the heavy salt water.
“Feel for the bottom,” he said. I ducked under the water and pushed my toes toward the bottom. I felt soft sand two inches below where I was floating—I could almost stand.
After a few minutes floating together in the water, he told me to grab my board. I was anxious about managing my board again, but together we paddled and turtle rolled and made it past the break to the place where the sea meets the sky.
“We all have imagined selves and imagined futures we have to let go of.”
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that conversation with Roberto. Let go. You’re clinging to your surfboard like you need it. You don’t need it. It needs you. It has become a sort of metaphor for a lot of things in my life. What am I clinging to that I think is the key to overcoming the waves? What am I holding onto for dear life that I need to let go of?
There’s a version of myself that alludes me. He’s better at a lot of things. He’s less insecure. He’s a better pastor, a better husband. And I cling to that vision of myself because I imagine that I have to be striving for that in order to overcome the onslaught of waves.
We all have imagined selves and imagined futures we have to let go of: careers, spouses, families…visions of our best selves and where that imaginary self will take us one day. We imagine these visions are the keys to propelling us over the waves. But when the career falls apart or the spouse never comes along and the future looks different than what we imagined, we find ourselves clinging to a surfboard we need to let go of.
I’ve even clung to my faith and had to learn how to let go of it. In my twenties, the experiences and confidences that had been the foundation of my faith began eroding. Faith didn’t feel the same; answers I used to be comfortable with were no longer satisfactory. My understanding of how I related to God had changed in ways I was confused by. I also happened to be in my final year of seminary. I felt a tremendous amount of anxiety because I was losing my grip; I didn’t have the same confidence I used to. It was terrifying. God was abandoning me, or I was abandoning God—either was awful, and I started having panic attacks.
In hindsight, I was losing my grip, and I thought if I lost my grip, I would drown.
What I have come to realize is that I was trusting my grip on a surfboard that couldn’t save me. I was trusting my grip rather than Christ’s. I was letting go of a faith that was synonymous in my mind with God. At the time, that felt like failure; it felt like giving up on everything I believed. But without the surfboard to trust, I found myself floating in ocean water, for the first time, trusting in God’s grip on me rather than my own grip.
“I was trusting my grip on a surfboard that couldn’t save me. I was trusting my grip rather than Christ’s.
Surfboards aren’t bad. You need one to catch a wave. But if you’re holding onto it to survive, you’ll drown. So many imagined futures have been lost, and it is easy to write about letting go of them. It’s another thing to trust God to carry you in the surf when the waves are crashing around you.
Justo Gonzalez, a Christian historian and theologian, says this about the future: “It is a poor memory that only works one way; only remembering the past and not remembering the future. God is the future which pulls everything forward.”
We can let go of the future. It isn’t ours to hold, and it certainly won’t be what we imagined. But God will be there, holding us through the waves.