By: Matt Gordon
Last week I read Old Man and the Sea. It is about an old man and the sea. I know, I know: spoiler alert.
But seriously, very little happens. This old man is a fisherman. He lives a pretty meager life, the highlights of which are threefold: mentoring “the boy” (a younger person than the old man), checking up on the Yankees and the great DiMaggio, and catching fish. He sees less and less of the former since the boy took up with a different crew, a decision which was prompted by a sharp decline in the latter—the old man had become a rather ineffective fisherman.
And that is pretty much the whole of the backstory. The rest is the old man taking his skiff way too far out to sea in pursuit of a great fish. He catches this great fish in a true epic—in the sense that is Sisyphean more than heroic. The fish is so large that the man must strap it to the side of his little boat, and on the homeward journey sharks accost him unrelentingly. The sharks smelled blood. He fights them with a knife, then with a club, then with what minuscule will and energy is left to him. After a few days at sea—a time which has made the old man much, much older—he arrives at shore. The fish has been devoured by the sharks, leaving only a skeletal husk.
And the story ends.
Again, very little happens. And that is the beauty of the tale—it is simple, yet in no way is it simplistic.
I think the complexity lies in paradox. The old man wins in that he catches a behemoth fish. His bravery takes him further than most would go. His strength allows him to suffer well and win the day. Despite some poor planning and an immense struggle, he survives the ordeal. He wins. Yet at the same time, he comes back with almost nothing. There is no grand payoff for him in the conventional sense—in fact, the villagers heap not praise upon his exploits (for they witnessed none of the victories of the journey) but sympathy. The old man, to them, is a tragic character.
Maybe we all are, in a way.
We’ll live a life. We’ll strike off toward the horizon, land at our back, forsaking the known for the unknown. We’ll work and marry and breed and raise children. We’ll try things and fail; and other things and succeed. We’ll fight the sharks, staving off defeat and old age and reality.
Until we can’t.
The sharks come in waves.
The sharks have the numbers.
The sharks crave flesh.
The sharks reduce us to our finitude and limit even our grandest legacies.
Hemingway understood this, it seems. He lived it. And he died it.
As we all will.
The beauty, though, is that within all of this there is the choice. The choice the old man made was to strike off into the beyond, even if he had to go alone. He fought through pain in willing the fish to submission. He fought the sharks until there was no fight left to be had. He clung arthritically to hope and soaked in the thrill of the chase, the catch.
We’ll all lose in the end. Something, at least.
But can we win a little on the way? Will we go down trying and swinging and hoping and praying and suffering worthy of whatever it is to which we have been called?
For the old man, he was a fisherman. It was him, the sea, and a magnetism, negotiated by him and God, between the two. And knowing this, he bends crooked back, launches skiff, and sets off toward the horizon, duty in one hand and hope in the other.