I just finished reading Ernest Hemingway’s little book The Old Man and the Sea for the first time in my adult life. I’m sure I had to read it in high school but remember nothing of the experience. I can imagine, however, the average student of that age saying, “We had to read this stupid story about this stupid old man and his stupid fish. It was all so stupid.”
And maybe for the young, it is. But not for those of us who have lived a bit more. It’s of course a story about a poor old fisherman in Cuba that was first published as a book in 1952 and won a Pulitzer Prize, as well as being cited in Hemingway’s Nobel Prize for Literature citation awarded two years later. First printed as a magazine article in Esquire many years before, it has haunted readers for each decade since.
The old man, Santiago, seems to have run out of luck. He’s in a dry patch. He has not caught a fish in 84 days. But he’s determined to go out and catch a big one. So he ventures out in his little boat much farther than is normal, out to where the biggest fish may be found. And after a time, he eventually hooks a huge Marlin who pulls him and his small boat farther away from land for three dqys. They fight and struggle and all the old man’s knowledge and skill are put to the test. Can he have the success of which he has dreamed? Can he endure all that is required? It's hugely difficult, but the answer is yes. The fish finally succumbs and is lashed to the boat and the old man heads back toward land with dreams of the glory and the needed practical income that will result from such a huge and perfect specimen, bigger than anyone has ever seen. It may even be a life changing accomplishment.
But the old man is out on the water alone. He has not brought along the strong boy who is his friend and who often accompanies him on fishing trips. During the extended struggle with the giant fish, he often wishes he had brought the boy with him to help. Another pair of hands could have been so useful. But he struggles mightily and prevails all alone and is glad. Yet, his solitary success is quickly followed by a new challenge. Sharks descend on the huge Marlin he has caught and the old man is limited in what he has with him to use to defend the catch. Thinking of something he could have brought with him, and should have brought along, he finally says to himself words that flow down the decades and into all of our lives:
Now is no time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is. (83)
When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Or if you forgot to prepare for your adventure with sugar and water, is there at least some vodka around that you could use?
Santiago fights the first shark that attacks with a harpoon. After losing it, he lashes a knife to an oar and does battle with the next sharks who come. When that’s also gone, he begins to club at the predators. And eventually he is out of options. The thieves of the sea take more and more chunks out of his magnificent catch until there is nothing left but the spectacular spine and bones as a trophy of success and testimony of subsequent failure. He has lost what he had fought so hard to gain.
When he returns, exhausted, demoralized, bruised and cut up, he sleeps and the boy takes care of him. After they talk, the boy says: “Now we fish together again.”
The old man replies, “No. I am not lucky. I am not lucky anymore.”
“The hell with luck,” the boy said. “I’ll bring the luck with me.” (92)
And then they begin to discuss what they will need to bring along with them to be properly prepared for anything they might face together.
And that’s a perspective and trajectory we all need. Great effort is sometimes followed by failure. Even great success can wither on the vine. Don’t let disappointment stop you, however deep and desperate it might be. And never just wait for luck. Bring the luck with you. Take action. Partner up with someone who can help boost your spirits and aid your cause. Prepare. Move forward once more. Remember: There is always a new dream and a new chance and many fish in the sea.
For the book, click HERE.