The left and the cross. Lefty's, Gracetown, West Aus. Photo: Evan Morgan

The left and the cross. Lefty’s, Gracetown, West Aus. Photo: Evan Morgan

The Inertia

I had planned on dedicating this time on my Saturday to telling you about my new book I am about to release and explaining to the followers of my blog why I haven’t written a story for about a year, but I’m not because something is weighing heavily on my heart.

I’ve been quiet, but not because there hasn’t been a lot that has happened. Life is crazy. The dream never really dies no matter how hard life tries to club it to death, and it always does try. That’s not that important today because today we are reminded about how fragile life is.

A man died yesterday at Lefty’s–our special surf spot. In many ways, Lefty’s is our home in Western Australia. It’s the holidays and, instead of the anticipation of joy, a family has lost a loved one. Real human beings have lost a friend, a family member, someone important to them. A family has lost a surfer that they love to the deepest, darkest, most morbid of nightmares that surfers face. A table at a holiday dinner will sit depressingly empty because the man who was to sit there is gone, never to come back.

What do you say at times like this? I’m not religious, but I have prayed for the man and his family. I don’t believe in god, but I pray in a shamefully selfish way that when his name is released, it will not be someone that I know. I feel bad for that thought because it implies that the people in my life are more important than people in the lives of those I do not know. I wish I could say something that would make it better, but I can’t. Words don’t bring people back. My heart does go out to the family and friends.

I feel for the family. He fell victim to a gruesome killer that tore him to pieces. He fell prey to the most primordial of beasts. He fell victim to the worst fear that has plagued me during my lifetime. I do not feel sorry for the man, however.

That may sound like an insensitive thing to say hours after a big fish ended this man’s life. In fact, I know it sounds insensitive. A couple of years ago, I would have probably been very angry with anyone who wrote something along those lines. But in the past few years, some very special people taught me much about life and death.

A shark has taken another life. And, again, as always, the word “tragedy” is being thrown around. Again, calls to hunt down sharks and slaughter them as murders are echoing from internet lynch mobs. However, I don’t know that I agree with either point of view.

A man paddled out into an area notorious for sharks. The man was most likely aware of the area’s reputation, but he went anyway. Why did he do it? Love. The man loved being in the ocean so much that he was willing to risk his life to do so. How many people can say that? For some reason, when I see the word “tragedy” put forth in reaction to this sad incident, I do not disagree, but I do automatically think of the words “honor” and “respect” instead. I think of words like “passion” and “living.” A man knew the courage to do what he loved, and to live true to himself. I can’t help but to feel that to pity that man is a disrespect to his life.

What is more tragic: a man who breathes his last breath at a young age while doing what he loves or a man that never knows how it feels to have the courage to do so and lives twice as long without knowing that beautiful feeling only to die in a hospital bed of old age? Death is a part of life. It is the only inevitable outcome that every human on earth will eventually share. Every one of you will die. How many of us actually live?

I can’t help but feel, even though I still do not know this man’s name, that I do not feel sorry for him. I feel respect for the unknown man. He deserves honor. Honor the man that lives while he breathes instead of simply breathing until he dies. I hope his family feels his love for life, and I hope that helps ease their pain. I hope that the family knows that, even without knowing his name, there are people around the world that are touched by this man.

As for the shark, our gut reaction as humans is simple. We are animals as well. We like to think that we are not, but take away our modern conveniences, our trained etiquette or practiced education, and we are just living creatures–just like the shark. Our gut reaction is to lynch the shark. As we speak, there may very well be men in Western Australia loading gear into boats preparing to hunt the shark. When something threatens us, when something scares us, we kill it. We may put forth ornaments of humanity such as logic, science or “public safety” as reasons for this. It make us feel more human and less like animals. But we are animals, and just like animals, we lash out at the things that fear us.

This may piss people off, but I feel it must be said. It is no more the shark’s fault that this man died than it is the ground’s fault when a skydiver dies or the road’s fault when someone dies in a car accident. There are sharks in the sea, and sharks sometimes take people’s lives. We know that when we enter the sea.

A few years ago, I would have been comforted by the thought of the shark hanging limp from a chain on a dock somewhere. I would have tried to convince myself that the blood dripping from its morbid mouth as it hung grotesquely next to “brave” shark hunters posing for heroic photographs would make things better. But it won’t. Does that make me a hypocrite for putting forth the opposite sentiment? Maybe, that’s up to you, but I don’t think so.

I was given a gift in the past few years. I learned men that knew more than me about what life means. I learned from men who knew more than me about what living really is. I learned from men like Philip Nel as he took me in and showed me what it meant to live a life as a surfer in False Bay, South Africa–perhaps the most notorious of shark lairs. I learned from him teaching me that it is an honor to share the ocean with such powerful beasts. I learned from his leadership in the False Bay surfing community following the attack on David Lilienfield at Caves. I learned that you must love the ocean for what it is. You cannot love the ocean, and you cannot love surfing, without respecting sharks because they are part of the fabric of the thing we love.

I learned from men like Phillip “Doc” Chapman as I followed him out to surf spots that scared me to the point of chain smoking while I put on my wetsuit, two years ago to the day. I learned as we paddled out everyday as we surfed our way up the empty, ominously sharky coast of South Africa. I learned from him what it meant to not let fear cause you to deviate one centimeter from taking a path that leads you to do what you love.

I learned from friends like Justin Devos, who lost his brother to a shark yet is determined to live his life in the ocean any way he can because that’s where he is happy. The ocean is where he feels alive, whether he is on a surfboard, a kayak or spearing fish.

I learned from Grant Godfrey and his story of being circled by a large shark as a kid. I learned from his determination to live close to one of the scariest surfing spots in the world, Dungeons, because that is where his heart lies. I learned from him that sharks are “the guardians of the sea.” It took me a long time to figure out what he meant by that, and I guess I didn’t figure it out until I read Phil Nel’s story of the attack on David Lilienfeld, and I saw David’s familiar face in the news.

Why are they “the guardians of the sea?” They are such because they are so savage, so inhuman, so cruel. They are so because they inspire the darkest of uncontrollable fears in humans. They are such because they cruelly introduce tragedy into our lives. They are such because they randomly sacrifice humans that do not deserve to die. They are so because of these things. They are “the guardians of the sea” because they are such horrible beasts that they scare off those that do not love the sea enough to risk their lives in order to live in the sea. In a cruel and disgusting way, they ensure that only those that do love the sea enough to risk dying are the ones venture out into it. Only the people that love the sea, only the people that know what it means to liveenter the sea at times like these, and those are the only people that belong in the sea. Those are the people who love the sea for what it is–our home.

I was relieved to find that a friend was there when the unknown man died yesterday. I was relieved to find that Dennis Millard was there because he is a man strong enough to lead people in situations like these. He is a man who knows the courage to live, and he one of the smartest people in Australia. He has dedicated his life to helping people as an emergency room specialist. He was the best person to be there at that time and he helped people through the darkness.

The shark is a vicious killer. The shark is a monster, but the shark has its place. The shark serves the same purpose as great heights do for rock climbers. It serves the same purpose as the ground does to skydivers. He is there to remind us that we are alive. He is there to test our willingness to live true to our hearts. The unknown man that died yesterday had his place as well, and he died with the courage to live. I hope people honor that rather than fooling themselves with the thought that killing a shark will change what it means to live. But it won’t be a tragedy if the shark dies either. It will die doing what it does, and it will be killed by people that do what they do. Death is the only thing we all share, and we even share it with sharks.

To my brothers in West Australia: be safe. I will always look forward to the day that we are sharing waves at Lefty’s once again. I hope that I am not alone in hoping that respect and honor for the man’s life will outweigh the grief.

Godspeed to the unknown man. Respect for his life. Love for the ones that he leaves behind.


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