A Gen-X Sense of Risk Is Needed to Save Generations Y and Z

In his recent book The Amphibious Soul, filmmaker and journalist Craig Foster offers a remedy for depression, anxiety, and the lonely—often disconnected—feelings that plague today’s chronically online culture. We must return to nature: swim, take hikes, let the ocean heal us.

Foster grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, and Foster was practically born in the water. While filming the documentary My Hunter’s Heart (2010), he traveled to Namibia to film the traditional nomadic life of Khomani San tribe. His cameras were rolling as the tribe hunted giraffe over several days. At the end, he participated in a ritual dance lasting “through the night and into the following day as the people sang and celebrated the success of the giraffe hunt.” It’s not the kind thing one gets to experience while working in a cubicle or remotely for Google. Foster wants us to get reconnected to our wild side.

Foster’s adventures in The Amphibious Soul suggest a good treatment for the mental despair plaguing America’s youth, as well as a leading cause for it. Technology is the obvious culprit—explaining so much about why our kids appear sad and dysfunctional in comparison with previous generations. Yet, instead of pursuing the obvious remedy, the solutions we tout today are drugs, therapy, or the vague suggestion that one should “go outside and do something physical.” That last one is at least getting closer to the mark, but it stops short. As Generation X knows better than any previous generation, sometimes the best way to jolt yourself out of a funk is not to just do something physical, but to do something others are tempted to call foolhardy, stupid, thrilling, and even dangerous. It can keep you out of the mental hospital.

After surviving a nasty political hit and subsequently, within the span of two years, losing both my mother and my older brother, I found myself instinctively retuning to the things that calmed and energized my soul as a kid in the 1970s and a teen in the 1980s—skateboarding, hitting a tennis ball, riding a mini-bike, going out dancing.

I also wanted to deal with that trauma by pushing the boundaries a little bit. I took surfing lessons, figuring as a lifelong skateboarder it would be a reasonable, if not easy, transition. It wasn’t. The first time out was a hilarious and sometimes frightening disaster. I spent most of the time doing wipeout summersaults under the waves. Yet when I got home at night something interesting happened: I found myself lying in bed and giggling. It was thrilling. The politics of D.C. seemed like another world. 

It was also around this time that I met Richard Brueckner. Bruekner, 51, is a DUI lawyer in Ocean City, Maryland. He’s also a passionate surfer with an acute spiritual awareness. If you get popped for drunk driving while partying on the Eastern Shore, you’d be very lucky to land on Bruekner’s radar. You’ll accept the mistake you made, you may get sober long term, and if you’re very lucky you might take up surfing and get in touch with the spirit of the universe.

Thirty miles south of the Joe Biden bunker in Delaware I found his small second-floor office on 63rd street in Ocean City, Maryland. No glass and steel elevators, no receptionist, just a soft walk up some wooden stairs to an office with the ocean a block away. Mounted on the wall is a green surfboard, which Bruekner uses every morning before work. He surfs, takes DUI cases, and teaches a class on surfing and life at a local middle school.

“Everyone thinks that kids are accidentally overdosing on fentanyl,” Bruekner recently told me. “That is not true. They want fentanyl. The formula from the 1950s—work hard, get good grades, go to a good college, get a great job, have a family, and all will be well—no longer exists for the teenage generations. They really don’t care whether they live or die. They do not have the hope for a great life that we did growing up.”

Bruekner, bald and slim, with the body of a much younger athlete, exudes the kind of paradoxical gentleness and strength usually found in spiritual leaders. When summer rolls around and I start taking trips to the Eastern Shore, it’s a must to check in with him. Planning on meeting him this year out in the grand Atlantic, I asked him when the best time is to go surfing.

“The best surfing takes place in the morning,” he replied, “when the wind is offshore, the sun is coming up, and the dolphins are swimming past. The very act of waking up and watching the sunrise connects us to God, the universe, and everything wonderful in it. Keeps us fit and connected to the universe, all of which is good for sobriety.”

Then he adds the kicker: “Also, the oceans waves remind us that we are not God and they are far more powerful than we are.” Do today’s kids know this?

In The Amphibious Soul, Craig Foster recalls dancing all night after going on a big game hunt. Do kids still go out and dance all night? Recently I came across video footage of young people dancing in clubs in the 1980s. A friend from those days reminded me that some nights you would be sitting at home feeling lonely and depressed, but then jump on a bus to one of the downtown dance clubs. Within a couple hours you were having fun, meeting new people, looking for romance. These rituals always involved some daringall of which can now be completely avoided for a date with a cell phone—but they were the things that led to relationships and happiness, to thriving in life. You would leave your house in the doldrums and return a different person.

It’s a feeling similar to what I experienced at my lowest when I finally had to sense to go try surfing.

Whether it’s because we are both Generation X, or because I gave up drinking many decades ago and he’s a DUI lawyer, my surfing friend, Bruekner, knew my type instantly. I found him locking into my psyche mere minutes after we shook hands. It happened when I joked about not having to worry about DUIs anymore since I gave up drinking in 1990, and then compared his surfboard to my Carver skateboard.

He instantly put together my sobriety, my skateboarding, and my attempt at surfing: “Oh man, I get it,” he said. ”You gave up drinking a long time ago but you need that speed, that adrenaline, to see and feel the world rushing by and feel that spiritual flow. You need that high.” I just sat there for a second, looking at him. He had diagnosed me, accurately. He noted that skateboarding and surfing can be risky behaviors that require not only skill, but faith.

But he did more than that. In just a few sentences, Bruekner would diagnose the deepest problem affecting America, as well as offered a simple and meaningful solution.

“If you’re into surfing,” he continued, “you tend to be reliant on or connected to the spiritual world. You are connected to nature. You’re a faith-based person. Most surfers don’t go through life scared. We aren’t gathering information from the news. We’re gathering information from experience.”

I should note that Bruekner is a smiling and humble person. He does not come across as didactic, but gentle. I asked him if he thought the kids could be saved. “If I had that answer,” he replies, “I wouldn’t be a simple criminal defense lawyer.”

I have no idea what Bruekner’s politics are. I don’t know who he votes for or what policies he endorses. Still, Bruekner had diagnosed America’s problems crisis much more profoundly than any politician. It was also a profound moment because Bruekner had not just pointed to the larger problems in American culture, he offered a practical and genuine way out. It wasn’t the government-as-daddy solution of the left—but it also isn’t the go-sit-in-church solution of the right.  

Maybe a lot of it really is just as simple as getting off the demon screens and getting back outside to play. Bruekner mentioned the loss of hope young people are feeling. Well, one thing that inspires hope is to be outside of your nest and in a fun, social environment with other people. While watching that reel of kids dancing in the 1980s, I noticed that the headline joked that back in the day we had such good rhythm because of cocaine. Not so, as someone in the comments section of the video rightly replied:

They had rhythm because they played outside as children. Their hip muscles, legs, and lower pelvic floor were very well developed from running, climbing, riding bikes, skateboards, swimming, hula hoops, jump ropes, and skating. Not to mention most kids played organized sports for a few years, and all those years of yardwork and household chores helped as well.

There is one memory I have from the ocean that will always be with me. I was in college and with a friend whose girlfriend had just dumped him. Beers helped, but not for long. He was depressed and people were talking about him getting professional help. He and I and some others took a trip to the Eastern Shore, which was still roiling after the tail of a hurricane had whipped through. Feeling either fearless or suicidal, my friend plunged into the ocean for a swim. He went out, then quickly realized he was going to have trouble getting back in. I will never forget the sight of him, a powerful multi-sport athlete, fueling strokes with all his strength only to keep drifting backwards.

Yet finally, the ocean gave way. He started making progress, inch by inch, then yard by yard. Eventually he made it back to the shore. He collapsed on the beach, and I put my hand on his head like it was a baptism. And in a way, it was. Then he looked up at me, and we both started laughing. Whatever crippling spirit had possessed him with memory of his old girlfriend had passed him and was gone.

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