What “Surfwise” Really Tells Us About Wisdom

Posted on June 18, 2008


My friends and I watched one of the most fascinating movies of recent. Surfwise is a documentary about the Paskowitz family (see their famous surf camp here), a renegade and maverick Stanford educated father, a 24 foot camper trailer, surfing, and an unconventional way of living and raising a family.

I would consider the film “earthy” overall. A short review, and some comments below.

Leaving conventional life pursuits behind, Dorian Paskowitz — a Stanford educated M.D. — discovered a new kind of life made up of a mixture of sexual exploration and discovery, primal instinctive behaviors, a deeply carefree and adventurous spirit, and a militant ethic of discipline. This philosophical cocktail led him to raise his family, one wife and nine children throughout their upbringing in a 24 foot camper trailer. Eating, sleeping, traveling, and sh*%ing together, they formed a family bond and a very unique and unconventional human identity, perhaps much different from the world around them. Traveling to anyplace from anywhere, their main love and passion became the sea, and specifically surfing. Throughout this time, and as they built a family business, various dramatic turns of events take place in each of the children, and in distinct ways making for a fascinating, albeit voyeuristic look at the positives and negatives of this kind of behavior, especially from someone so well known, well liked, and seemingly well grounded in society — Dorian Paskowitz.

In the end, the majority of the family rejects much of the father’s ways; only one son decides to follow in his footsteps. That reality highlighted some principles of raising children, raising a family, and general life principles that are common no matter how conventional or unconventional your techniques.

LIVING IS THE BEST EXPERIENCE, BUT NOT ALWAYS THE BEST EDUCATION. One of Dorian’s principles was a rejection of academic education because it gave the kids “knowledge” not “wisdom.” But, in the end we see that to be a false dichotomy. The fault is not that one is better than the other, but rather in choosing one over the other. That is to say, the classroom is important, just as much as the open road.

SEXUAL FRUSTRATION IS THE ROOT OF WARS. He didn’t say it quite like this, but it’s the general gist. There does seem to be something extremely fascinating with various cultural views on sex and sexuality. The Paskowitz family were very open with having it, expressing it, and being very frank with their children at the appropriate ages. This is obviously one of the highlights of intrigue as both the mother and the father kept very little from their children. But again, there seems to be a balance, as the end results were not necessarily sexual health, but rather it left many of the kids coping with their parents sexuality as well as their own. One thing I think Dorian did get right however.; if there is a God, sex is His gift to us.

MY OVERALL OBSERVATION IS THAT HUMANITY IS A VERY FLEXIBLE, SUBJECTIVE, ADAPTABLE, AND CURIOUS CREATURE, AND TRUE LIFE IS NOT FOUND IN THE VARIABLE MECHANISMS, BUT IN THE INTRICATE TIE BETWEEN THE TANGIBLE ENVIRONMENT, AND INTANGIBLE, INTERNAL, AND MEANINGFUL EXPERIENCES. All that to say that no matter what kind of upbringing you get, it can change, and you can and most likely will adapt well. And, no matter how deviant your father may be, there is something deep within us that allows us to return to central normal. True, various environments and experiences will always shape how far we swing on the “crazy” pendulum of life. But as time goes on, and as generations emerge, humanity has a way of zeroing itself out. This family is highlighted as an anomaly, because they are just that, an anomaly that has swung far on the side of the pendulum. Their kids? They’re trying to swing back to the center. This perhaps explains Dorian’s question in the movie, “Why are you filming us?”

Second to that, is because that mechanism exists, true life is found in the full swing of the pendulum, not just in its current location. That is to say, as we swing back and forth between extremes of crazy and conventional, we must receive and accept all that life gives us along the way. And add to that the spiritual component — God is able to redeem it for something of greater good, no matter how bad life has been.