Tuesday, December 28, 2010

I Want to Surf Like Abraham Lincoln

“Lincoln is truly the most progressive man of the age, because he always moves in conjunction with propitious circumstances, not waiting to be dragged by the force of events or wasting strength in premature struggles with them.”

I’m reading Team of Rivals, a biography by Doris Kearns Goodwin about Lincoln and the political rivals he brought into his presidential cabinet. It’s a light, 754 page (not counting the appendix) beach-type book that I thought would be fun. And I have not been disappointed. But for some reason this quote really captivated me. To compare Lincoln to a surfer, I would say, ‘Lincoln knew how to catch a wave’, and I admire that about him.

Now on the surface, that might make Lincoln (and me, by association) sound superficial; ‘catching a wave’ is usually associated with going with the flow, following the crowd, or jumping on a band-wagon. For example, Apple introduces the iPhone, Microsoft introduces the MeToo. It just looks bad and feels second rate. It involves following; not leading. And I usually put Lincoln in the leader category. So why would his ability to ‘catch a wave’ make him ‘the most progressive man of the age’?

Lincoln was dealing with big issues: a civil war, emancipation, and eventually reconstruction. In my life I like to think I’m dealing with pretty important stuff, but I’ll concede that Lincoln had a bit more on his plate than I do on any given day. But the principles can still apply.  Lincoln needed a lot of stars to align for his ‘plans’ to succeed, and he couldn’t control all the variables: public opinion, factions within his own party, financial resources, jealous generals, foreign intervention, and even just plain old weather.

Waves—and I’m talking ocean waves—are fundamentally consistent things. The movement of bodies within our universe affects the orbits of the sun, moon and stars, and earth. The earth and the moon in relationship to each other affect the tides and currents. And the tides and currents help create the waves. These movements are fixed. We know—to the minute—when the sun will rise and set, the instant of high and low tide, the moment the cycles of the moon will advance and retreat. So what does this have to do with Abraham Lincoln? And more importantly, how do I learn to catch and ride a wave?

Lincoln knew how to engage the right issue at the right moment at the right level. He was out there on his board, paddling, watching the horizon, looking, waiting for the right moment to lie down on his board, start paddling and eventually stand up. He knew when he could be effective and when he could not be. As the AA Prayer of Serenity goes, “Lord grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Within the orbits of my own solar system, the sunrises and sunsets, the rising and falling of tides in my life, how often do I try to force things to happen prematurely? How often do I feel like I’m wasting my time if something isn’t happening now? How often do I want external events or the opinions of others to be altered to match my plans, hopes, dreams, ideas and timelines? The unfortunate answer is: too often.

Now I’m not much of a surfer…yet. (I did take one lesson while on business to San Diego, but suffice it to say, I won’t need to be beating back Rip-Curl sponsorship offers anytime soon.) But I do understand the basics. We cannot force things to happen. Sometimes we just need to be out there on our boards, floating, waiting, watching. And while we’re there waiting for the wave that we know will eventually come in, we should enjoy the sky, the sunshine and the breeze. Because when the wave comes, we’re going to have to hustle, and we’ll be in for a whole different kind of ride. Someday I hope I can surf like Abraham Lincoln.


  1. Thoughtful post. I am gradually catching up on US history and learning so much. Lincoln is becoming a firm favorite. I love the surfing analogy - there are a lot of layers to it. Control being such a driving, and honestly pointless force for most of us, doesn't seem to stop us from trying to exert it on non-controllable circumstances.

  2. Thanks, Chyrsula. Ironically Lincoln's Sec. of the Treasury used polar opposite tactics to try and engineer beating out Lincoln for the next term as president. Ultimately, it backfired. Nobody wanted a disingenuous manipulator as president.

    I agree with you that, whatever the arena, trying to control the uncontrollable is futile. Why not just focus on becoming the kind of person we want to be an let the chips fall where they may? (Did I just paraphrase Ghandi...badly? :)

  3. I love this, Erik. It's always a good reminder to "let go and let God" (another AA favorite).

    If you ever get a chance to come out this way, maybe my favorite surfer can hit the waves with you. And then we can all go sailing.

    Glad to see you writing!

  4. Thanks, Tamara. I'd love nothing more than to hit the surf with you and Evan, be it on a board or a boat.