The best lessons about humility have been taught by the beach.
I grew up on one. Spent every summer on a shore, learned to read the tides and currents, categorized marine life with my own eyes.
If I know anything, it's that the beach teaches you so much about how little you know.
My first lesson came when I first began to learn to ride waves. I don't mean surfing-- I'm only so cool. I boogie board and paddle board, which are way lamer but much safer. In theory.
The first thing you have to learn when you ride a wave, in surfing and in all other kinds of water sports, is how to fall off.
Learning how to wipe out is a lesson second only to learning how to catch a wave in the first place. Once you've wiped out a few times, you gain a lot of confidence. A sort of defiance.
You've been through the ringer. You've been held down, gotten caught in the spin cycle, popped up for breath only to be held down again.
Failure in the water is the only kind I know that gives more confidence than it takes away.
The problem is that not all wipeouts are cute or fun or seem to have a reason. Every beach kid you meet will have a story to tell about one or two wipeouts that stay with them.
And they do stay with you.
My wipeouts were nothing huge or traumatic but I still remember them. One, I was seven, on a kayak with my dad on a red flag day. A huge wall of water, and then nothingness.
I had my Barbie life jacket to save me but I have never forgotten my terror, clinging to my dad's paddle as he dragged us back to shore, dripping and hanging with seaweed.
The second, the one I remember the best, happened when I was a little older, eleven or twelve. I took a wave too fast. My board got sucked back and under into the undertow and took me with it.
The force of the wave picked me up and slammed me head first into a bed of seashells once, twice, three times until I couldn't have guessed which way the surface was if you'd paid me.
I spent three days with an angry red mark on my forehead and sustained a long, thick scar from where a seashell took a chunk of my knee.
Lesson Number One: The ocean doesn't know you exist. It doesn't care how you feel. It has bigger things on its mind.
Whenever I had a spare moment between sets of waves, I liked to sit and watch the water with my dad. He has been coming to this beach for more than twenty years.
It's as much his home as it is mine.
My dad always mentioned the same things whenever we sat like this, eating chips and grapes under Tommy Bahama umbrellas, listening to Kenny Loggins and sipping from sweaty bottles of water.
"We're beach people," he said, with a nod. I nodded, too. We've always said if we had a family crest, it'd have a sea turtle. Because we always find our way back to the beach.
We never mind camping in the mountains or hiking from time to time. But nothing beckoned to us like the sea.
"How did all of this get here?" my dad asked, in the middle of a windblown game of Phase 10. "Think about that." And I did.
I watched the push and pull of the tides and wondered how anyone could look at the way every crest of white water found the same spot of shore so perfectly every time and not see God.
As if it had a mind of its own.
"When you think about it," said my dad, gesturing around him, "this will all be here long after we're gone." I shifted uncomfortably in my creaky chair.
"Yeah," I said, before changing the subject. I didn't like the idea of anything I Ioved remaining behind. As if my leaving was inconsequential.
But, as we know, the sea didn't care about any of us.
After years of living in it, tasting it, inhaling it, I know that I could never outsmart the water.
Great surfers have been brought down because the waves deigned not to perform, deemed them unworthy. People have died thinking they could outwit that pure, unadulterated power.
I watched videos of tsunamis as a child, as research. To understand that kind of force. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, "Unstoppable."
Cut to me, insisting I paddle back to shore in the middle of my first surfing lesson after learning that the water beneath me was eighty feet deep.
Lesson Number Two: Water is older and wiser than you. Unstoppable. Pure power. You are no match.
Let me put it this way: you will never again assume you are right about anything once you've stood on a beach at night without a flashlight.
Two summers ago, when I worked at a beach side restaurant, I decided to join my family on the beach after 9 PM.
I parked my car in a patch of grass along the main road leading to the private beach access. There were no streetlamps on this road. We lived nearby, next to a nature preserve.
Streetlamps deterred the animal life. Ambient light too close to the beach would confuse newly hatched sea turtles in their treacherous journey from nest to ocean.
Lucky they are born with an instinct to follow light. I had no such luxury.
I picked my way up the gravel walkway, fumbled up the wood steps to the long promenade that led to the shore.
The only way I knew that there were dunes rippling in the breeze to my right was from years of experience. The wood was gritty with sand, cold from the last few hours without the sun.
I rounded the corner and watched the bent old man who lived in the little blue house on the other side of the promenade turn out his porch light. We saw each other for a split second.
As soon as he turned out his light, we were engulfed in a black so dark it was almost blue. The sky extinguished the sand, rushed down from its height to throw a blanket over my eyes.
Everything blended together. The sky, the sand, the water, my own hands in front of my face were all one, deep nothingness. I managed to scramble down the steps.
My feet sank immediately into the sandy softness that I knew was white only from memory and I looked down but there was nothing to see. I closed my eyes. Opened them. No difference at all.
I took a step forward as if it were my first. The sand was still there. I couldn't see it but I trusted it to hold me up. Nature's evangelization.
As a child, I used to count the steps from the bottom of the stairs to the edge of the shore. So I could calculate exactly how much agony I had to endure before I could get to the water.
Now I calculate the time between today and graduation. It's amazing what waves can teach you about time.
I stood for a while on the beach, alone. Listening. In the distance I could hear families chattering over the roar of the waves, but they seemed on a different planet to me.
Standing in the pitch black, the sea spray slowly coming into view, I shivered and hugged my arms to my chest, even though it had been a hot summer's day.
It wasn't until my toes felt the waves my ears could hear that I saw them.
At the very edge of my sight, at the very crux between the abyss of sky and the distant hinge of sea, I could just make out a star. And then, as soon as I noticed that one, I noticed another. And another.
And then all at once, my eyes adjusted and I could see hundreds of them, everywhere, unlike anything I could ever hope to see back in Georgia.
A galaxy older than I could comprehend, hanging above waves that have crashed ceaselessly,
carelessly, for hundreds of thousands of years on sand that has been swept under the rug of saltwater for unknowable millennia,
and will continue to do so long after everyone that exists on this earth has died and their descendants have lived and died, and their descendants, and theirs, all down the line until the end of time.
There is nothing on earth like standing alone at night on the beach. And knowing that here, nothing and no one exists or has ever existed or will ever exist again. Not even you.
Everything is one, ageless, eternal. You are nothing to sea and sky and endlessness. You are no longer human, standing on that alien shore. You are so much less.
Lesson Number Three: And yet, you are so much more.