This is part 2 of a 5-part continuous story about our most exciting everyday monsters. Check back weekly to read on.
Previous chapters can be found here:
He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze back into you.
– Friedrich Nietzsche
Part 2: People Are Just Misunderstood
Diving for research in the remote and murky kelp forests of California’s central coast places you at the precarious intersection of white shark and food. In that cold water, the potential danger of your circumstances is never far from your thoughts, even with the obsessive attention that science or SCUBA diving demand. It is unlike the crazed speculations of everyday conversation, or Shark Week. Sometimes when the fatigue sets in from working underwater in freezing temperatures and hefting heavy equipment around all day, your thoughts about your situation can run a little rampant. Still, it is a practical fear.
There is a focused, almost calm feeling you get when you are in very real danger. When your immediate survival is on the line, you make little time for mental flights of fancy. There is the world in front of you; the instant of your own existence, and that is all. This is distinctly different from the irrational paranoia that folks use to intoxicate their own endocrine system the second they plod into ankle-deep ocean. Most people don’t ever put themselves in situations where they get to experience true feelings of concern for their continued safety around sharks. These circumstances are in fact, rare. People do however, engage in wild paranoid speculation about sharks in conversation and in media. Often it is founded in very little reality, yet people will indulge to the point of hysteria over the subject. Why? What does that get us? What does our collective indulgence in irrational fear of sharks reveal about us?
Bear with me for this next part.
We do it because we are in love. We love sharks.
We love the excitement of sharing an ocean with them. We love the idea of a predator, which we perceive is more capable in that environment than we are. Moreover, we love the exciting dangers of the ocean. Why else would anyone spend so much time discussing them? Why is it that shark documentaries with the greatest intentions toward conservation, still almost unanimously focus on sharks harming humans? There is always a segment with the dark music and vague speculation about danger of attack, right before cutting to commercials. It leaves us on the edge of our seats. We love it. Saying so is not remotely far-fetched. We derive thrills from fear in a wide array of examples. Most of these are things that we feel we thoroughly understand and have some measure of control over. When we understand our fears, we cherish them. Once we understand what they are, we look to them as excitement instead of terror; just like a roller coaster, jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, SCUBA diving, mountain climbing, running with bulls, bungee jumping, racing cars, dating, etc. Even now, thriving tourism is built around shark diving in various places in the world. As a culture, we have been regaling ourselves with terrifying stories of toothy monsters from the time that we first wet our feet as a species. We are built to revel in strife. We cherish our struggles and the thrill of uncertainty.
Danger is value.
And let’s face it, love is dangerous. What could be more? One of the few things with more emotional insanity behind it than the fear of being devoured by carnivorous predators, is love. Love is the fuel of our greatest works of art and of story. Religions have been built around it, and wars begun in its name. Love and danger are almost inseparable in our own psyche. We derive mind-bending excitement from both. Our passion accompanying dread for sharks has been evident for centuries in the form of seafaring folklore. We need our ocean to have its monsters, and sharks are the most evident. The sea without danger is sterile and passionless. We are in love with the ocean’s perilous unknowns. Love drives our passion for frightening maritime mystery. There are no epic poems about mundane everyday life; no time-honored stories extolling the virtues of a thorough flossing, or of societies rising up against having to pay their parking citations in a timely manner. No oral tradition takes care to pass on the idea of a content day at the beach to future generations. We jump with rapturous fervor at images of a real giant squid, yet hardly flinch at a documentary on rockfish. This is well-illustrated by the fact that, you dear reader, are probably wondering if those really look like rocks (they don’t), but you’re damn certain what a giant squid looks like. Rockfish are commercially important. Most people who have ever eaten marine fish, have eaten rockfish. A plate of mislabeled “snapper” is simply on the wrong end of being eaten for us to be in love with it the way that we are with the idea of anything that stands a swimming chance of eating us.
No. We crave the risk and the danger. We are in love with the excitement. We are in love with sharks.
Part of the problem that will not allow us to be honest, accountable, and admit we’re in love with sharks is our own entitled idea that nature in close proximity to civilization should be without risk. We assume that some other entity, government, or citizen is looking out for us, and should protect us from the infinitesimally small risk of interacting with sharks during a day at the beach. When we think of wilderness, we often imagine forests, deserts, or other remote habitat far from the infrastructure and safety of civilization. “The wild” is a dangerous realm. Danger, and the self-reliance that come with spending time in the wild, can be freeing. That is what people find so powerful and seductive about it. Conversely, we’ve built our cities right up to the edge of our habitable world, so the beach and nearby ocean should be without risk, right? We forget to view the beach as wilderness because we live right on top if it. You can’t go very many paces from shore before the sea becomes inhospitable to human life. Let’s dispel some silly notions here. Get ready to be excited again….
The beach is wild. It is wilderness.
There is no Santa, your parents put that money under your pillow, honeybees are not trying to sting you, and the beach is not Disneyland. You can’t get indignant, scream injustice, and sue the beach when the ride malfunctions. You just have to pay attention for yourself. We act like sharks are the boogeyman of the sea. This is strange since we clearly accept responsibility for ourselves when it comes to very real risks that occur at the borders between land and ocean with regularity. We take the time to educate ourselves about jelly stings, rip-currents, red tides, and sting rays. We put up warning signs, we check our surroundings, shuffle our feet, lather up in the heavy-duty sunscreen, and get right down to enjoying our time at the beach. There is evidence to show that when the beach-going public is educated, we are quite content, will take responsibility for ourselves, and enjoy our time more. Look at rip-currents. Folks are terrified of them for a minute, until someone explains that simply swimming parallel to shore for a bit will get you out of them. The most important thing for safely handling almost every beachy hazard is not to panic.
Oh. I see what you did there. You panicked.
Our behavior so far in relation to sharks, appears no better than elementary school kids when we first grapple with the uncomfortable stirrings of attraction. We shout that they have cooties, throw an eraser at them, and run away. Deep down, we hope they chase us just a little bit. Our love for sharks has lasted far into adulthood, but our relationship skills have never developed beyond name calling and wetting ourselves. We’ve developed a mob mentality for dealing with our love, when we could have just asked the poor sharks out on a date to understand them better. So how do we move on to a more fulfilling relationship?
What? You’re not sure if you want a more fulfilling relationship with sharks? You aren’t finished with your dirty fantasies about them, and the occasional one-aquarium-stand? OK, let’s at least admit that we’re having a relationship and just settle for saying, “it’s complicated.”
Seeing the ecological benefit of healthy shark populations for the ocean is complicated. Seeing the benefit of having healthy populations of sharks in the ocean for the human soul is almost beyond imagining. …almost. We’ll get to that stuff later.
Tune in next week when we answer the big question; “What have sharks done for me lately!?”
…queue Janet Jackson.