Like Moby Dick, The Old Man and The Sea clearly isn’t for everyone. But I loved it. You don’t pick this one up for the plot, you pick it up for what it says about the human condition. About each one of us, more so the older we get. Life is a struggle. Sometimes we get lucky and something amazing happens. But even then, does it really matter? We can feel proud and we can feel shame, we can face the world as an impoverished Cuban fisherman or as the great Joe DiMaggio, we can feel energy or exhaustion, and we can put up brilliant and incredible fights… but in the end, does it matter? We all die. We all struggle and die and then are eaten.
That sounds horribly depressing, I realize, but it’s not! Truly! How freeing to know that no matter what you count as your personal successes and failures in life, we all end up the same way. The trick is just to keep fighting. Just keep striving for better, for stronger, for longer. Be content with what you have and what you’ve achieved, yes, and allow others their own choices, but strive, always strive.
Santiago is like some kind of Zen master, never begrudging the other fishermen for their success, still loving the boy even though he has had to join a more successful boat, and deeply respecting the marlin who struggles so epically and forms such a worthy adversary. The sharks finally snap the calm, peaceful thread through this story, the sharks that defeat the old man.
There will always be sharks. There will be 85-day stretches without a fish. There will be giant marlins who fight for 3 days. There will be times you have to eat dolphin without lime or salt. The nobility of these struggles comes not from the struggle themselves, but out of how we react to them. Each of us has a choice at every moment to get angry, bitter, and frightened. Or, we can choose to recognize the ultimate meaninglessness of these tiny battles and accept life for what it is.
This story could very well be the defining one of Santiago’s life. But who will know about it outside his village? How much will he even tell the boy? This is just one small story in the course of one small life, the kind of thing that gets quickly forgotten by everyone else. But what is a life but a series of small stories–accomplishments mixed with failures? And what can a story from another small life contribute to mine?
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