In the late afternoon I had a last minute lesson scheduled before dusk. My student was a 40-year-old woman from Manhattan who had never surfed before. The surf was nearly perfect for lessons. She greeted me at the surf shack with equal parts excitement and nervousness. I’d spent that summer teaching a wide variety of people how to surf, so I assured her she was in good hands. I felt confident in my ability to instruct her.

She was eager to get in the water but appeared distracted as we went through all the steps on land. We laid on our boards in the sand, repeatedly squatting and standing, to help her develop the muscle memory she would need out in the water. I kept stressing the importance of practicing on dry land and remembering the safety techniques we would use in the water. “Anything could happen once we’re in the waves,” I told her. Unknowing of the sheer power of the water, she dismissively nodded in agreement.

We took off paddling towards the horizon, aiming for beyond the reach of the breaking waves.  After only a few minutes of paddling, I could tell she was exhausted. The waves began to smash into her. Non-stop walls of water buffeted her until she was hopelessly flailing.

“STOP, MAKE THE WAVES STOP, NOW!” she yelled at me.

Terror and helplessness fueled her screams for me to stop the waves. I realized this woman must have never experienced the feeling of being completely powerless, at the mercy of something neither she nor anyone around her could control. Although the woman had appeared to be so put together in the safety of the beach, the open water had led her to act alarmingly unreasonable. Unlike this woman, I had experienced the overbearing power of waves many times before. As a surfer I relish in the feeling of being subject to something greater than myself.

I had considered picking her up and swimming her to the beach, but I knew it would have been dangerous for me to go near her. The waves could have caused us to collide our heavy, 10-foot boards into one another. I turned toward her and said, trying to muster what I thought of as stern serenity, “Look directly into my eyes. I’m sorry, but the ocean does not stop for anyone. Take a deep breath and focus on what we learned.  Move to the back of your board and point it towards the beach. You can do it.”  She calmed down just enough to follow my directions and let the waves push her back to shore.

When we were safely on the sand the woman looked at me with disgust. She was livid. It seemed she didn’t understand why I had not done more for her while she was being slammed by the waves. I had no more power over the waves than she did. The best thing for her to do was to relinquish her desire for control and focus on executing what we had practiced. I empathized with her helplessness, but my only option was to calm her.

Through my lesson with her, I gained a new perspective. I realized that I am in control of my own fate, but that there will be times when I might feel powerless to the obstacles that I am faced with. Like the woman, I have two options. I can choose to stay focused and let all that I’ve learned guide me or I can let my discomfort overcome me. Just as she found her way back to shore, I know that by maintaining my composure and using my knowledge, I will be able to reach my destinations and navigate the waves of life.