DEATH & FEAR
When that shit comes down, You just go to death. That’s honesty. That’s it. You are an organism. You are in competition with death.
Death colors, shapes, illuminates, consumes, elevates, and inspires us.
Its turbulence; its randomness; the impenetrable veil around it; and its inevitable occurrence—these are what shape our material and spiritual nature. Who we are. What we are. Why we are.
But in many advanced Western cultures, we are losing our connection with death. We’re pushing it away as an unwanted side effect of being human. A flaw in the organism. But in losing our connection to death, we lose something vital in life.
Here, Laird explores his relationship with death and with fear—and how the presence of death throughout his life has moved him, marked him, shaped his nature, and influenced how he chooses to live every moment. And he explores how fear can be a force for good in our lives, fuel for our fire—but only if we first seek to understand it, and then learn how to manage it.
You know, the ocean came and took people off the beach and you never saw them again. They weren’t people that I was personally connected to, but I was exposed to people drowning and people getting brought up right in front of my house—bodies getting pulled in.
Death was a part of everyday life. It casts a shadow. Leaves its mark.
I had a friend—a guy who moved in next door to us—who I used to surf with quite a bit. I went to get him one morning and he was laying on the floor of his house, dead. He didn’t come out as he always did, so I went in to look for him and I found him lying there.
I’ve been exposed to a fair amount of death from a young age. Situations where I would come across people being dead, either through drowning or natural causes. Those situations were probably more than a normal boy might experience.
The majority of the death I was exposed to was ocean-related. People just getting sucked away and never being seen again; or floating in five days later. You get an instinct for it.
I remember once being down at the beach and just feeling that something wasn’t right. Wasn’t good. You get to know the water. To sense things. So there I am, pretty young, telling a guy not to go in the water—and the guy telling me to “piss off.” He then goes in the water, and the guy drowns—and then his son drowns.
I think that situation affected me deeply. It changed me. It made me a lot more aggressive. Once I could tell that someone shouldn’t be going in the water; that they didn’t have the experience, the knowledge, to be there; I’d walk up and tell them.
I could be ten years old and go in there and swim all day, and I’d see adults go in there and drown. So at a certain point I really starting getting in people’s faces, and telling them that they really shouldn’t be going out there. It didn’t matter to me that I was just a kid.
I mean, no one likes being told what to do, right? Especially by some punky kid. They’re kind of like, “You don’t tell me what to do.”
But it’s the sea. You have to accept it. You have got to go to it with respect in your heart.
“Laird wasn’t really disobedient—he was still practicing his intelligence; he was putting other people to the test; although they thought they were testing him, he was testing everybody else.”
—Coppin Colburn, Hamilton family friend
Surfing was dangerous even when I was small. I lived at the Pipeline and they were pulling guys in with skulls cracked open, faces smashed—guys that were tough. Surfers got hurt a lot at that beach because that’s a very dangerous beach, and then I went from that to moving to another island where a couple of the beaches that I played on were equally dangerous. One of my favorites, Lumahai, was the second deadliest beach in the state of Hawaii. It ate three or four people every year—sometimes more. So I played and lived in places where people got smashed up a lot. Died. A lot.
A lot of people get hurt in surfing. Sometimes it’s just minor stuff. Stitches and puncture wounds. And sometimes because of the nature of that sport, you’d get smashed heads, broken necks—something heavier. And people’s skill was everything in surviving in that water. The equipment they were riding wasn’t nearly as reliable.
But even so, there’s a forgiveness about the ocean in one way. A lot more people should be getting a lot more hurt a lot more often than they do, given what they’re doing. It’s remarkable that the Pipeline doesn’t take more lives.
So in the world I grew up in, death and your relationship with the ocean are one.
I think there’s a through line that exists among all people who are connected to the ocean. There’s always one or two random hot rods out there, but for most people attached to the sea, there’s a certain respect that you have for the ocean, and a pretty conscious awareness because of the nature of the environment itself.
The environment is so powerful that you’re going to have death on your mind somewhere. And you’re going to believe in something greater. I don’t think there’s a lot of atheists in the lineup, just given the nature of the magic and the beauty and the intricacy of what the ocean is.
A friend of mine calls the ocean “the soup of life.” It’s a pretty complex and very alive organism. And it doesn’t discriminate. It will just pound you.
And in that moment—in that turbulence, when you lose the edges of what you know in that white-water tumble dryer—that’s where science meets the spiritual. If you’re underwater, you can’t breathe. It doesn’t matter who you are and what you can do, pretty much we’re all the same guys sooner or later under the water. We all have the innate fear of drowning. We all have the presence to understand that there’s no oxygen below the waterline; and there’s big creatures that live there and heavy stuff happens.
“Nobody knows that ocean better than Laird; ever since he was a little kid, he belonged there in the water. The ocean communicates to him. And he knew that—something about that water that drew him to the ocean—if he could sleep in the ocean, he would sleep in the ocean. He respected it and knew it—and he knows the ocean can take his life at any time.”
My description of riding a wave is simple: there’s no beginning and no end—it’s just a continuation. Where you start and where you left off are just phases or moments on the same line—on the same continuum. And that’s life, too.
Death has always been there for me, I suppose. And not always just the kind served by the sea. Not knowing my real dad—that’s a kind of death. Is it a physical death? No—but there’s grief there, for sure.
If I look back on my father’s absence—I think that’s what death ultimately is—they’re gone—they’re absent. For me, I think the initial exposure to the concept of someone being dead was ultimately the fact that I didn’t have a dad. My dad was gone, whether he was alive or not—I didn’t even know. He wasn’t there—ever—on the phone or in a letter—there was nothing.
I realize now that I was grieving that absence and loss. I just started from the beginning of my life with that concept of someone being gone.
That was a version of death that I was experiencing at a very young age. I think that definitely has to be the beginning of the foundation of my perspective on death.
Death comes in many forms, and some of it really gets to you. It shapes you. It opens your eyes. And you see how it makes every second of life precious.
Polynesians are not terrified or overpowered by the phenomena of the dead. Inborn talent, trained sensitivity, and education enable them to handle phenomena as naturally as they do the winds and the waves.
John P. Charlot, Polynesian Religions
My friend who I used to surf with as a kid was diagnosed with terminal cancer. They told him he had six months to live, so he just moved in where we lived and went surfing every day and he ended up living eight years longer. I spent a lot of time with him.
And he had the presence of death around him. He lived with death. I got no time, I got no time.
I think that definitely had an influence on me—in the way I wanted to live my life. To make sure that I was always living in the present. How would we live if we knew that we were going to go tomorrow? We don’t think about that enough now. It would be nice to cultivate that feeling more often, and really think about how you would live if you knew tomorrow was the last day.
I had a friend, Bunker. He was my buddy. He overdosed and died. I spent a lot of time with him when he was a kid. I watched him just transform from a happy person to an unhappy person. I couldn’t help him. I was too young and he was too crazy, but I felt like somebody killed him. I feel like he got killed by people that were trying to take advantage of his wealth. That affected me a lot.
When somebody lives for the ocean, they’re on it, in it, and then they go and get drowned. That’s one thing. But when you have got a fatal condition, a terminal cancer or illness of some kind, and you’re just dangling, waiting for the thing to drop, those are two different things right there. When you live under the truth of “Hey, I have some sickness and I’m going to die—I’m going to die in the next day or two or month”—when you have that hanging over you, that definitely influences your behavior—versus when you’re young and you think you’re invincible!
Let’s be clear here. Death is part of life. It’s the cycle. Where I grew up it was pretty ordinary in some ways.
Death is just part of the deal.
It’s no surprise to me that when you look at many high-performing people in any field, they will have the echo or the evidence of some high-stress point, some emotional trauma, on them; something that stressed the organism. Abandonment. Poverty. Abuse. Humiliation. Grief. Loss.
I suppose in that way death has often been a relentless stress point on me. And in a weird way perhaps it has evolved me in particular ways.
My mom’s death had big effect on me. I’m only just starting to realize how much.
But one thing about her preparation for death was that it didn’t put a burden on me. I didn’t have any potential resentments that could come from somebody you care for dying and leaving a big mess, and then you have to go clean it all up. That wasn’t the case—if anything, it was the opposite. You learn from that.
I was in good standing with my mom, so I was lucky. She and I had just recently reconciled our differences, so we were pretty OK. I think that helped me—going through the mourning of it—because we were good. There was no regret. Nothing lost to us. Regret is a killer. That stuff will tear you up.
I found equality in the sea. It was a place I could escape to. There was something there I needed. The trouble was on the land.
Sure, in my need for the ocean, I may have been running away from stuff. But I was also running towards stuff.
Let’s not forget, the sea was really exciting. Super thrilling. You would come back and feel invigorated, feeling so alive.
The sea is thorough: all-consuming—literally. You go into it and you’re immersed—physically, emotionally, spiritually—separated from any of the things that you’re thinking about—or that you don’t want to think about.
My need to connect with the ocean is ever present. I naturally gravitate towards the power of it because it’s the most honest and the most productive way to live for me.
Life is here. Death is here. They’re both of each other—as close to each other as the negative and the positive of a battery—intertwined.
That’s why you see people doing things that seem to be so dangerous—because that’s where you feel the most alive. Hanging in that space between life and death. Of course we’re going to go there: that just makes complete sense to me. If you make it so nothing’s dangerous and there is no risk—then how does the living feel? Pretty boring. You need one to offset the other. Pleasure doesn’t really have the power it does without pain. The nature of pleasure is directly related to the experience of pain—that discomfort of the senses. Those things are interrelated. They need each other to exist. We need fear to exist completely; to know what calm is. What serenity is.
But let’s be clear. Feeling fear and being scared are two very different things. Fear is about respect. Fear leads to informed action. How we manage and control fear is an elementary part of survival. Fear reminds us that we need to continuously assess risk. That’s honesty. That’s respect for things bigger and stronger than you.
“He’s always waiting. I can feel it; some days I feel for him. I used to dream that I could produce big waves for Laird—I used to have dreams that would say, ‘OK. Here’s the deal,’ like a power; ‘It’s gonna come tomorrow and it’s gonna be twenty feet tall.’ I used to wish that for him because sometimes it’s a long time.
“And he has a fear—a fear of a flat planet. For him it’s maybe the only time he can take all his skills and put them to the test, but also be completely consumed in it.”
Fear is about being on. Fear is about awareness. Where does that ability to switch “on” come from, to manage it? It can come from lots of places. For me there was a tipping point in my relationship with fear: the first time I can remember switching that awareness “on.”