I have a friend from medical school. As students we sometimes went to the beach together. We both loved to surf, but when it came to riding waves, he was ahead of me; I was a late comer to the sport. Over the years though, I started to inch ahead of him. I put in more water time, I got up earlier in the mornings and I was hungrier for waves.
He decided to concentrate on his career and he worked really hard at medicine. He settled where he could find the best training posts. I took jobs near the sea. Then he went to the UK and worked at some of the most respected centres for vascular surgery. I went to Indo. Repeatedly.
While I was learning about late take-offs and trying to make it out of barrels, he spent hours in theatre, becoming adept at operating, learning the intricacies and techniques of transplants, grafts and intensive care.
He lost contact with the sea. His paddling muscles are small now and he has put on weight, though he is still fit. He runs marathons occasionally. But he can’t really surf anymore: he can’t make it to backline.
On all those perfectly glassy mornings when I paddle out for an hour of bliss, he puts on a formal shirt, pulls the SUV out of the garage and commutes to work. While I’m sneaking in a session after work, he is still busy sorting out the admin at his practice, losing more hair and enlarging his stomach ulcer.
He is a successful vascular surgeon now. He can save your leg after you mashed it to a pulp while burning rubber on your bike. He can do wonderful things that took years to learn. And me? I am happy enough as a general practitioner, I like a bit of everything. But I never acquired a skill that took years to learn. Except surfing. I’m still not a great surfer, but I can do things on a board now that I found entirely impossible, inconceivable even, two decades ago when I started.
We both acquired abilities that took years to master. Which was the better option? Which one was more worth while? He can cut away a cancer to save your life, but he can’t do a cutback anymore. And I? For all the endless hours I have spent in the water, I have nothing to show. I often ask myself, could I not have done something more productive with my spare time?
Who took the right path? Of course there’s no right or wrong here. We need people like my friend. They make the world a better place.
But when we talk about surfing, he gets a wistful expression in his eyes and he says he wishes he could catch a few waves again. He admits freely that there is nothing in this world like sliding down a clean face. He longs to have that feeling back.
Then I know that what I have done hasn’t been a complete waste of time like all those bitter old people told us when we were young. I’ve collected pockets of happiness, parcels of joy. I’ll open them one day when I need them.