Airports, Surfing, and Flow: Looking Around

by Ben Carter

An airport is a miracle. At airports, humans—fat, fleshy, be-thumbed bipeds—fly. And not just a few chosen humans,[1] millions of humans. Airports are the pinnacle of human achievement.

Airports should enjoy the same sort of hushed awe that the North Rim of the Grand Canyon enjoys, that overfalls the crowds standing before Michaelangelo’s La Pieta. They deserve the kind of “Ooooooooooh…” that the Northern Lights receive or the silence that swept through the arena in 1988 as Michael Jordan lifted off from the foul line.

Why, then, should airports also lay us so low? Instead of inspiring, instead of uplifting figuratively instead of merely literally, airports degrade us. Some of the reasons are obvious: backscatter x-rays, lines, being coughed on by strangers, being confronted with the very existence of barf bags, the confiscation of your wife’s expensive hair product. I am not interested in obvious answers.

How can something like “the miracle of human flight” be lost on me so consistently? This is an important question. If I’m missing it at the airport, where else am I missing “it”—whatever “it” might be?


We are all haunted, at least occasionally, by the sense that we are missing it. I have met three people—a camp director, a writer, and a judge—in 33 years who knew they weren’t missing a damned thing, who knew that what was around them and within them was all they needed. These people are forces of nature. I would like to tell you that their examples are inspiring. They’re not. Being in their presence is deeply unsettling.

I am not one of them. I fear I am always missing it, so I am left to wonder, “How do I so consistently miss it?” In the context of airports, I think part of the problem is the aggregate of all the obvious inconveniences, but that can’t be the final, only answer. It is not possible, is it, for a hard transcendent jewel to be fatally dulled by minor irritants? If this were the case, the search for some sort of connection to God, or a Large Thing, or Human Potential, or Meaning, is certainly doomed.

What scares me more about my consistent failure to appreciate airports is how similar airports are to most of the rest of my life. Airports are mundane and airports are not the destination. I think these facts about the airport are deeply connected to the larger reasons for my life-wide miss.

At one time, I understand, people were wowed by flight. It was new and palpably mind-blowing. No longer. Now, every jackass in America can get on a plane. Even this jackass. No problem. And, we fly all the time. We do it so often, the airport is just everyone’s communal living room: we’re in our pajamas, eating nachos, watching the news. We are no longer children of flight. There is no wonder, except to wonder who farted. We are grown-up. We have responsibilities. Responsibilities that do not include awe, gratitude, bliss.

Flight is mundane and mundane is hard to pay attention to.[2] That’s sort of definitional. Something mundane is something we have permission to ignore. The problem is: most of my life is mundane. My mind was blown in childhood and then blown again in my 20s. I suspect and fear that it might not be blown again and that’s not okay with me.

As I type, I am miles above some midwestern state. A lake below reflects the haze above which I am seated. Fingers of forests and veins of creekbeds encroach on the order of the winter-brown fields. Above, the sky is always blue.

This is not why I’m here. The glowing clouds outside my window are not why I took two weeks off of work. The orange light below me on the fish-scale clouds and the green-brown haze on the horizon are not the point. I’m here to get to Palau. This flight is just an implementation detail.

Hawaii is for refueling...

This is the second fundamental problem with airports and airplanes: they are never the destination. I am literally hours from Palau—where I learned to surf, where I learned to dive, where I learned to defend people accused of crimes, where I learned how to be married. For months, Erin and I have been planning and anticipating our return. We’ve been looking forward to it. The phrase “looking forward” pretty well encapsulates how I feel about the problem of destinations: when I’m “looking forward” to something, I’m not looking around.

How much have I missed on the way?

To be honest, I don’t really know what to do about the twin problems of overlooking the mundane and looking forward to the destination. But, I am almost certain that if I’m going to be prepared for awe, if bliss is ever going to overwash me again, I will need to crack both.

I have a few ideas for this project.

There’s a great book about surfing called West of Jesus. The author’s hypothesis is that surfing grips its participants so deeply, inspiring in them an almost (and often actual) spiritual devotion to the practice of surfing, in part because as an activity it forces the surfer to a) focus on mundane things like wave patterns, wind direction, tides and b) focus only on the moment. In other words, there is no destination, there is only now and what you must do right now to catch this wave.

Palau Surf Legend Bill Ridpath on Overhead Flow

The same biochemicals that flood a practicing, meditating Buddhist monk’s mind when he or she is in a deeply meditative state flood the surfer’s brain. Like surfing, meditation encourages a practitioner to focus on mundane things, often inhaling and exhaling, and focus only on the moment, not worrying about achieving enlightenment, or a certain sitting position, or whatever. Just the breath. Innnnnnnnnnnnnn. Ouuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut. Innnnnnnnnnnnnnnn. Ouuuuuuuuuuuuuut.

I have felt that deep gratitude, connectedness, and joy while surfing and, more rarely, while meditating. I have also experienced it running. In that context, of course, it’s called “Runner’s High” and is awesome.

But, I have also felt it while writing. Even legal writing. The conditions are the same in each situation: an intense focus on the details (mundane) to the exclusion of everything else (no hunger, no football game, no pets). Maybe the same chemicals aren’t involved in writing, but I wouldn’t doubt if they were.

What I am really talking about is what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” in his book, Flow: The Pschology of Optimal Experience. Flow (Wikipedia explanation) is basically that state of being in which a person is fully engaged in their activity, being challenged but also up to the challenge. You lose track of time. You lose track of yourself. You are only what you do.

Primarily, I’m not concerned with how to achieve those rare, hyper-aware states brought about by surfing and intense meditation. Rather, I’m more interested in how to let those moments infuse life each day in ways that allow me to appreciate the jaw-dropping miracles of daily life.[3] I am terrified I am missing them, that my life has become an airport. On this point, I have to say I have only the faith that pursuing spiritual practices like prayer, meditation, writing, and surfing will help me look around and appreciate the sacred mundane.

Outside my window, there is snow on the fields and mountains. The city lights look like pools of fire on dark frost. To my left, across the aisle, the sun has set and a fellow traveller reads by the fading light of another day.

  1. Sure, sending humans to the moon, keeping them in a SPACELAB for months at a time might literally be a higher achievement, but I’m going to maintain that relatively safely sending millions of humans a few miles into the air each year is a greater cumulative achievement.

  2. I have spent years and multiple rolls of film and endured the derision of family and friends capturing images of mundane things. I go to Hawaii and take pictures of ferns near blowholes, not the blowholes. I will shoot the gravel in the parking lot of the Appalachian Trail, a rusty nail in the side of corrugated aluminum, a dandelion between railroad ties. These photos are not interesting. What is interesting is the practice of focusing, literally, on the mundane.

  3. Yes, I am aware that this essay is essentially just a longwinded refrain of Joni Mitchell’s exhortation to “talk in present tenses”, John Lennon’s observation that “life is what happens when you’re making other plans”, Blake’s desire to “see the world in a grain of sand”, and Anonymous’s hackneyed observation that it’s the journey not the destination. I know. I suck.


Gatewood Spoke To Me

by Ben Carter

In law school, I had a radio show at WRFL, UK’s student-run radio station. Gatewood was a guest[1] on the show twice: in January of 2005 and in March of 2006. The audio from the 2006 interview is at the bottom of this post and the 2005 episode (which has really bad sound quality), is in a separate post.

In all of the remembrances and statements regarding Gatewood, one word keeps surfacing: “colorful”. That’s how the Kentucky Democratic Party described Gatewood in a tweet last week. 

This pisses me off. 

“Colorful” is a pretty obvious way of dismissing Gatewood as a loon when, in fact, he thought harder about government and its role–both positive and negative–in people’s lives than 100% of the people who now hold elected office in Kentucky. But, his actions were more important than his thinking. Gatewood acted upon his convictions and that’s what people loved about him. That, and the fact that he was easily and always the funniest person in the room.

Americans love authentic and Gatewood was 100% authentic. You know who doesn’t like authentic? Power. Gatewood’s authenticity scared powerful people. This is why they try to dismiss him and his legacy with chickenshit words like “colorful”.

At a time in Kentucky politics when both parties are owned by Big Money, Gatewood stood alone against the Petrochemical Pharmaceutical Military Industrial Transnational Corporate Fascist Elite SOBs.[2]

There is no question that Gatewood was charming enough and friendly enough and smart enough and well-credentialed enough to hold any public office he wanted in Kentucky–if he would have just gotten in line with the powerful. 

But, if he had done that, he wouldn’t have been Gatewood. 

At the end and throughout, Gatewood wasn’t colorful–he was himself. Despite the lure of power, despite the press of marketers and salesmen, despite the fact that people would try to remember him and dismiss him as “colorful”–he was himself.

People and parties who will describe an authentic, earnest, integral person as “colorful” clearly have no idea how hard it is to become and be and remain yourself. For those of us who do, the memory of Gatewood Galbraith will remind us that it is, indeed, still possible to live a real life in America in the 21st century. You can disagree with everything Gatewood said and stood for and still see him as “the last free man in America,” a truly courageous man, someone worth respecting and emulating. 

Gatewood deserves to rest in peace. The rest of us, however, have work to do. 

  1. That Gatewood would appear on a 7 a.m. college radio show tells you just about all you need to know about his passion and generosity.  ↩

  2. A term that only Gatewood could have coined and that only Gatewood could deploy credibly. He uses it a few minutes into the 2006 Interview. By the way, the other interviewer is my buddy, Alex DeGrand. He’s the one asking the good questions.  ↩

Acting Faithful: The Only Way I Know to Become Faithful

by Ben Carter in

I cannot escape the notion that what we do matters far more than what we believe. This is an old debate. As far as I can tell, it’s one of the primary reasons[1] Protestantism exists today.

Sure, having both faith and works is optimal–two of the Buddha’s eight big things (known formally as the Noble Eightfold Path) are right understanding and right action. Martin Luther, the man largely responsible for the sola fide doctrine in the first place even recognized that

“Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever…Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire!”

In Martin Luther’s view, faith leads inexorably to good works. Good works are the measure of faith: Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever. Same as the Buddha: right understanding is the foundation of right intention and, next, right action. I really love what (I just found out) Scottish theologian John Murray said,

Faith alone justifies but a justified person with faith alone would be a monstrosity which never exists in the kingdom of grace. Faith works itself out through love (Gal. 5:6).

I recognize that this is a very nuanced area; I feel myself wanting to set up an antinomian straw man that I can knock down in service of my point that what you and I do on this earth matters. Instead of doing that, let me tell you a couple reasons why I think the church gets it wrong if we insist on faith instead of insisting on action.

I am, therefore I choose

I believe that suffering and pain exist because God allows them to. Given God’s omnipotence, God could easily have created a world in which God’s creations were automatons incapable of either wrong thought or wrong action, capable only of embodying God’s will 24/7. But, that’s (clearly) not what has happened. Most suffering and pain exist because of very human failures: greed, selfishness, cowardliness. Failures God allows us.

The implications of this are enormous. Suffering, injustice, oppression, pain–all are abhorrent to God. But, more abhorrent would be a world without agency. Choice, then, has to serve as the justification for all of life’s pain, all of the systemic inequalities that bestow riches and inflicts poverty. For God,[2] your freedom to believe and do as you please is everything. Or, if not everything, at least worth suffering for.

Freedom appears foundational to God’s creation. Everything flows from the primacy of freedom. What we do with that freedom matters. And, what I’m trying to say is that I think the real inquiry is what we do, not what we believe.

Would you rather live in a world in which everyone believed in Jesus or one in which everyone behaved like Jesus? Which do you think God would prefer?

I know that for Martin Luther and other nuanced protestants, separating belief from action is difficult if not impossible, but I’m not that sophisticated. For me, I’m trying to figure out whether if you had to choose between either belief or action, which would you choose as the modality that mattered more?

God decided to make this Earth one on which humans could inflict enormous suffering, unthinkable injustice, upon each other. Clearly, to God, freedom to act matters. It matters terribly. I don’t think it’s overstating things to say that for God, choice is the foundational rock on which Creation rests.

For humans, choosing is inescapable: I am, therefore I choose. All day. Every day. Even the most mundane choices–where I eat, where I bank, what I drive, whether I drive–matter. These choices either foster humane, just relationships and systems or they reinforce systems that oppress and profit from pain. These things matter to God. We exist to make these choices, to act.

The only justification for suffering that makes any sense to me is that it exists because our freedom to act is more important than human suffering. Considering the cumulative amount of past, present, and future suffering on Earth, it’s on us to act with wisdom, compassion, and love. If we do not, all the suffering is for naught; the cruelty of the situation becomes overwhelming.

Do Justice

Second, in my experience, faith is the product of action, not the other way around. Asking people to believe first then act is backwards.

For me (and I suspect for a lot of people), the only way I have ever found faith is by backing into it. Do something that is a gift for someone else, act small against large injustice, especially act alongside someone else–WHAM! …there’s God. God wasn’t there before, but God’s here now. Faith is a constant process of backing up. Act, then believe. Faith can’t be thought, it has to be done.

I reject a model for right action that says first you believe, then the actions based on that right belief will be holy.


You give a hungry guy a peanut butter sandwich–that act is holy whether you believe in Jesus or not.

Elevating belief over act forecloses participation in the physical and spiritual life of a church for many modern Americans. Telling people, “First you must believe in all this blood and body stuff, then the good works count” drives a wedge between the church and many people who want desperately to participate in their neighbors’ lives, to make a difference in their neighbors lives and have their lives reciprocally enriched, deepened, challenged.

It says to people, “We can help you think your way out of that paper bag.”

Young people don’t want to think, they want to act. What is happening in America, what is happening on Earth is not okay. Poor kids grow up without a chance at success; drugs consume young people; people starve; they die from malaria; racism, homophobia, and xenophobia persist. Corporate power grows across political parties and across borders. Young people know that the economy they’ll inherit is one based upon exploitation of human and natural resources. They are not okay with any of this.

They want to do something about it.

They want some corporate power themselves, though they probably wouldn’t say it like that. They want to experience the power of living in a body of people trying to cultivate just systems, people willing to sacrifice, to work. The corporate power they seek is the power that flows from being part of the body of Christ on earth.

But you can’t say it like that.

You can’t say it at all.

You have to act it.

Young people hear a lot of cheap talk out of churches. They heard a lot of cheap talk from rich Christians when they were growing up–that’s why they’re not Christians anymore.

There’s a reason why Micah 6:8 is my favorite single verse from the Bible: it emphasizes action.

God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Do justice. It’s not something you can think. You can’t do it from the pews on Sunday morning. It’s what happens after.

“The voice of the Lord cries to the city… ‘Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights?’”[3]

I don’t care what you believe about Jesus or his dad. If you cannot tolerate wicked scales, if you want to fight for honest weights, if you want to do justice, I am there for you.

If you will walk beside me, pick me up, I’ll do the same for you. You spread the peanut butter, I’ll cut the bread. I’m confident we’ll find faith together somewhere in the crumbs.

And if we don’t find faith, we’ll find each other. As far as I’m concerned, that’s enough.

  1. Sola fide (Latin: by faith alone), also historically known as the doctrine of justification by faith alone, is a Christian theological doctrine that distinguishes most Protestant denominations from Catholicism, Eastern Christianity, and some in the Restoration Movement.

  2. as far as I can tell… through a glass darkly and all that…

  3. Micah 6:9–11