The Search for Peace in the Life of Tony Hawk
Growing up, I went through different stylistic phases in an attempt to find my authentic self. I tried on different identities to see how they fit. In late elementary school, I went through a “baller” period—despite growing up in a small, rural town—complete with FUBU outfits and basketball jerseys. In early middle school, I had a skater stage. (The early 2000s were a confusing time for me.) I grew my hair out and tried to make it into dreadlocks. I went down to the local skate shop and bought my pair of Etnies shoes and a Volcom t-shirt. I got my Enjoi skate deck and Element trucks and wheels. When I arrived home, I practiced my best ollies and pop shove-its. I tried ollie-ing down a staircase to no avail. I never grinded a rail. Heck, I couldn’t even kick-flip.
In other words, I was (am?) a poser.
Being a poser is how I self-consciously approached the new documentary on Tony Hawk, Until the Wheels Fall Off: The Search for Peace in the Life of Tony Hawk. The subtitle is telling: the search for peace. I can relate to that pursuit.
I think everyone goes through an awkward phase around middle school of trying to find their true self and identity. (Perhaps that’s why middle school is so miserable for most people.) Who am I beyond what my parents tell me? Who am I outside of my chosen friends?
Tony Hawk’s search starts by nature and is cultivated by nurture. His mom describes young Tony as “a very determined” child. His older brother has his own interpretation of that: “He was a bit of a dick.” Stubborn and resilient are two sides of the same coin, however. Hawk was the youngest child by a large margin: his mom had him when she was 43, and at times described him as her “little mistake.”
Growing up, Hawk’s dad, Frank, coached his baseball team, but as a scrawny and lanky young boy, Tony never felt like he was an athletic fit. When he discovered a skateboard from his older brother, his life began to feel a bit more comfortable. He found a sense of peace—“Ah,” so it seems. “This is where I fit.”
However, that peace did not last long. At that point, the skate world was pretty much anarchy. A group of young people developed this surf-board-like sport in southern California. The competitions (if there were any) were wild and free. Hawk’s father, perhaps in an effort to connect with his son, founded the National Skateboard Association and ran the competitions as president. As a former navy man, Frank Hawk was militant and rigid. He liked rules. In essence, he was a grumpy old man trying to organize the chaos of punk rockers.
So even when Tony did prove himself, his success was shadowed by his dad’s presence. When he won, it was perceived as favoritism. He didn’t fit in with the jock crowd, and even when he was good enough to fit in with the skaters, they viewed him as the guy whose dad was a prick. In a world of punk rock, Tony was a scrawny, pipsqueak-looking kid. He did “flippy-dip” tricks in a world of hard pool skating. He was not with the fringe of punk rock. He was mainstream, as evidenced by his dad putting structures and rules on an underground sport. He didn’t belong even in the sport he was winning. He was booed at contests. Fans threw beer cans at the teenage Tony Hawk.
Rodney Mullen—whom I am most familiar with through playing Tony Hawk’s Pro-Skater—comes across as a sort of spiritual guru in the film. (He’s either one of the most spiritually enlightened souls I’ve seen or he’s smoked entirely too much marijuana. Either way, I want what he has.) At one point in the film, Mullen says, “I don’t think people understand that when skateboarding becomes an expression of who you are, your identity… that stuff is all on the line during those contests.” In this light, the real issue was not Hawk’s unpopularity. In many ways, the skate world was rejecting the very essence of who Tony Hawk was.
One can imagine the resentment building up brick by brick. He’s a mistake. He’s an athletic outcast. He’s coddled. He’s a poser. As the wall of bitterness builds, the search for peace seems far off.
But Hawk was finally able to prove himself. He won a competition outside of his home park in Del Mar against tough competitors. He then went on a rampage of winning—traveling across the country and coming home with oversized checks. He conquered the critics, and his name was spreading across the skate world. But those closest to him knew he was never satisfied. He would win and was happy for a few minutes as the pictures were taken, but he remained the harshest critic of himself. Yes, he won, but he could have done that run better. He pursued constant improvement and success. Admittedly, he says, this drive “probably affected my emotional connection. I couldn’t think of anything else.” The search for peace was not just alienating for Hawk, but it distanced him from others. That’s how the search for rest works.
So, he became a machine: doing the same thing over and over, rehearsed, unimpassioned. But it was isolating and lonely at the top. People were competing for second place, because Tony had first place locked. He achieved his dream of success and still felt empty. He began to think about quitting.
Rodney Mullen showed up as a lifeline to free Hawk. Mullen came in with his philosophical wisdom, this time quoting Nietzsche: “You make it up to the top of the mountain and what’s left for me but lightning.” Achievement could be just as disorientating as failure. Mullen also wrestled with his success in the freestyle world, so he advised Hawk to take chances at events and embrace the freedom of not winning. It liberated Mullen, so maybe it would help Hawk. According to Mullen, “Detachment is freedom. You can breathe. We skate with our hearts. It has its own feeling.”
Rather than skating for accomplishment, Mullen found freedom through holy detachment, to borrow a phrase from the Ignatian exercises. Skating for external reward came to bind Hawk and Mullen. Once he detached himself from the things outside and focused on the internal peace, Mullen found he skated more freely—for himself and from his heart. Ignatian spirituality says that once we give the things up that don’t help us love God and love others, we are free to be our holy selves. But when we live for things and people and expectations and ambitions outside of ourselves, then we become slaves. Therefore, Tony Hawk became a slave of skating success.
For the Christian, this motif of slavery and freedom is likely common. Any good created thing we value as the highest good becomes a god. Our lives grow disordered because this good thing can never carry the weight of being the ultimate thing. For Hawk, skating became the thing that his affections rode on. It’s what he did when life went bad rather than sort through the disorder in his own heart. He neglected the good parts of his life—family, faithfulness, home—in order to chase success in skating.
Reflecting on his sudden and unexpected rise to fame, he says “[Fame] is the worst drug. It’s so easy to fall into: infidelity, lying to myself.” His kids were not a priority. In the few interviews with Hawk’s oldest son, Riley, he talks about his dad more as a friend who’s recovered from an addiction rather than with the affection of a son. Hawk asks himself, “What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you just be content?”
Hawk could find a fellow companion in the search for peace in St. Augustine. In the famous first lines of his Confessions, Augustine has a restless heart. He is searching for peace in all of these external pursuits—ambition, scholarship, career, friendship, women. But these “rests” keep letting him down. In reflecting on his search, Augustine writes:
And see, you were within and I was in the external world and sought you there, and in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made. You were with me, and I was not with you. The lovely things kept me far from you, though if they did not have their existence in you, they had no existence at all.
By the end of the film, Hawk sees the kind of man that he was, and he didn’t like it. He didn’t like the husband he was, the parent he was, the person he was. In a sense, he came to a holy self-realization. He recognized his heart was disordered, disoriented, without peace, restless. So, he decided to use the discipline and focus that made him successful in skating and apply it to develop his life. Stubborn and resilient are two signs of the same coin, as I said. He chose to use his perseverance to change his life. And in many ways, it’s working. He’s developed into a good dad for his youngest daughter. He’s in a safe relationship with his fourth wife. His eldest son, Riley, says that it’s the healthiest version of Hawk that he’s seen.
In his Confessions, St. Augustine concludes, “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new: late have I loved you.” After pursuing those lovely, created things, God calls Augustine to himself:
You called and cried out loud and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I feel but hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I am set on fire to attain the peace which is yours.
I’m not sure Tony Hawk has found that beauty so old and so new. But he has found a sense of rest. It’s not the final beauty, but it brings a temporary peace that’s better than the inner conflict he’s faced for most of his life.
Toward the end of the film, another nugget of insight comes from Mullen on a life well lived: “Laying down with ourselves, you know? Embracing what we’ve done with our lives.” Hawk comes to the point of self-acceptance. But perhaps he needs to travel the road a little longer, to search for peace a little more, to experience his resilience failing him one more time in order to arrive at the destination of forgiveness. Perhaps we can hope and pray that he “comes to himself”—renouncing the external pursuits and finding that God has been with him all along—and thus experience the peace that is not his own but God’s.