I’ve always been terrified of sharks. Ever since that fateful night when I was 10 and my friend and I stayed up late, after his parents went to bed, and watched Jaws on HBO. All of us have regrets in life. That night is one of mine. I’ve never totally recovered.
As a surfer, the fear of sharks is always one little bump away. What I mean is, you can be sitting there on your board, the sun out, chatting it up with your friend, and then you tap something with your foot underwater. A bit of seaweed, let’s say. And immediately you jump. Shark! At least I do.
Up til now, it wasn’t that difficult to talk oneself out of the fear that these moments created. After all, this is Southern California. We don’t really have sharks down here, right? Maybe out past Catalina there are sharks, but otherwise we’re safe near the shore. Stay away from Santa Cruz and San Francisco and you’re fine.
But then the sharks started hanging around San O. That spooky video surfaced of the guy on the SUP filming the two “juvenile” great whites in front of the power plant. All of a sudden, things didn’t feel so safe. But the moral of the story became, stay away from San O. The sharks must like the warm water there. Everywhere else should be fine.
Until this year. And now there are sharks everywhere in Orange County. From lower Trestles to the Huntington pier, shark sightings and beach closures are becoming a weekly occurrence. Fifteen sharks at once in Capo. And people are starting to get bit.
And worse, now they’re showing up in Laguna! One at thousand steps last week, and then that creepy drone shot of that huge shadow at Crescent Bay. Stories are coming up about surfers getting chased out by a great white at Crystal Cove. Laguna has become sharky.
I was surfing with a friend the other day when he thought he saw a fin. I won’t name names (uck Chay), but his immediate instinct was to paddle behind me, putting me in between himself and the fin. I looked at him with exasperation and said, “really?!”
I’m not going to lie…the sharks have significantly dampened my enthusiasm to surf. And while I haven’t quit surfing, it has become easier and easier to find a reason not to go out. I know I’m not the only one. Even though the odds of getting bit are so amazingly low, the thought is too horrific. It isn’t even the risk, as much as the lurking fear and anxiety when you’re out there. Surfing is supposed to be a release of stress, not a cause of it.
Fear is such a powerful emotion. Most of us cope with it through a good dose of denial. Rarely do we get behind the wheel of our car and think through all the potential life-threatening possibilities that await. But sometimes the dangers present themselves in ways we can’t avoid. And when they do, it can be impossible to get them out of our heads.
As I’ve been thinking through this notion of fear, I am becoming more and more aware of the sharks that are swimming in other areas of my life. Fears and insecurities that I ignore, for the most part. I pretend they don’t exist, even if they are only one bump away. One mysterious pain I can’t explain. One rejection or criticism. I keep them at bay through vigilance and hard work and success. But when something happens, say I disappoint someone, or say the wrong thing, or lose my temper, and all of a sudden I become aware that there is a fin in the water. This time though, it is in the ocean of my own heart. Dangers are lurking there that I’d rather not face. Fear not only of failing but of being a failure, not only of disappointing, but of being a disappointment.
I think it might be easier to just be eaten by an actual shark than to deal with all the shame and insecurities that lurk inside me. Those graver fears can be terrifying. They cut deeper than our life or breath. They speak to our identity and our ultimate value. The measure of who we are.
And this matters more than just survival, at least to me. It isn’t just about staying alive. It is what we stay alive for. But to do this well, we cannot ignore the threats. And we cannot stay out of the water. At some point, we are going to have to learn to face these fears. To coexist, and to realize that there are no safe options if we want a meaningful life. To live with our whole hearts means we risk getting bit. We engage, even if it puts us right in the middle of the food chain.
I remember watching the contest at J Bay that year that Mick Fanning was attacked by a great white during the final and ended up punching the shark in the face. What incredible bravery! I may never have the confidence to do that in real life. Who knows? I hope I never find out. But I do think I can work up the nerve to punch some of my insecurities in the face when they show up. When I feel horrible about myself, or filled with anxiety, or discouraged or overwhelmed. Instead of getting out of the water, I long for the courage to remain out there. To not let my fears keep me from experiencing the fullness of life. To not give up without a fight.
So I think that today I’ll go surfing. Of course, I’ll keep an eye out for fins. But I won’t just sit on the safety of the sand. The cost of that is simply too great.