In Ernest Hemingway’s classic yet poignant story The Old Man and The Sea, we witness the struggle for existence in the seas of life. For like the old fisherman Santiago, the daily fight for sustenance on this planet traversing the cosmos is never ending.
The story opens this way:
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. But after forty days without a fish the boy’s parents had told him that the old man was now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky, and the boy had gone at their orders in another boat which caught three good fish the first week. It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat.
“The old man was thin and gaunt with deep wrinkles in the back of his neck. The brown blotches of the benevolent skin cancer the sun brings from its reflection on the tropic sea were on his cheeks. The blotches ran well down the sides of his face and his hands had the deep-creased scars from handling heavy fish on the cords. But none of these scars were fresh. They were as old as erosions in a fishless desert.
“Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated.”
The word salao in Spanish means salty. It was not intended to be a compliment for the old fisherman.
To the people of Havana Cuba, especially the sea farers, Santiago was like his patchwork sail, reflecting the state of “permanent defeat”. There were those few who remembered the man Santiago used to be—Santiago El Campeon.
In his younger days he was a champion arm wrestler and fisherman. His renown was talked about in the bars and fishing boats along the coast.
Unfortunately, as we age, our physical stamina and acuity fade with the passing seasons. Our self-perception changes like the trade winds of the Gulf Stream.
For Santiago there was a youngster named Manolin who still believed in him and wanted to learn what the old fisherman could teach him of the sea and life. Manolin was like a devoted son to the lonely man.
The life lessons which can be imparted from those who have lived a full life are as valuable as the gold of legendary Ophir or the opulent African diamond mines of King Solomon, which are lost in the mists of time. For once the book of life is closed for such an individual, the world experiences a tragic loss.
Too many older individuals perish each day and take their collective wisdom and experiences to the necropolises from which no answer can ever be heard again. Their voices are now silent.
Their memories, if someone took time to appreciate them, will evanesce into the dark shadows where knowledge ceases with the unrelenting passage of time. It is only as one takes their experience and knowledge and applies it to themselves and others that a form of immortality is achieved by those aged voices.
For Manolin, Santiago was the epitome of one who cared about the sea, so he sought to listen carefully to the aged voice before he passed the confines of this sphere of existence. Santiago’s immortality would be Manolin’s remembrance and application of his teachings.
At the beginning of the story Santiago appeared to be nearing his end. However, Hemingway gave the aged fisherman one last great adventure.
Santiago achieved his dream of a miracle catch of a fish of unbelievable beauty and size after the great fish had pulled him far from shore before it weakened and was able to be harpooned. Like so many cultures down through the ages, life in the sea was viewed as the brothers of man, and there was a symbiotic relationship between humans and sea life.
However, since Santiago was so far from the shore, he knew he was in the fight of his life. The great fish was too big to fit inside his boat and had to be fastened on the side.
Santiago knew too well it would be an invitation to the sharks to come for a royal feast at his expense. Sharks would be a formidable foe for the old fisherman exhausted after his days of fighting with the great fish.
Sharks did come. He fought them with every ounce of his vim and vigor.
The great fish suffered attack after attack by the various sharks. Santiago fought them until he could fight no more.
His great prize, his sea brother, was just an empty shell of bones when he reached shore. He had hoped for a better and profitable outcome, but he knew the sea, where life and death played against each other each passing day.
All Santiago wanted was to reach his adobe and sleep. The herculean struggle of his life had just ended, but sleep would renew him for the tomorrows to come, and sadly, he knew there would be few tomorrows.
As he slept, the renown he had known in his youth was rekindled as his fellow fishermen and visitors saw the skeleton of the great fish. Santiago had achieved another moment in the light of recognition for such a remarkable catch.
Sharks were a way of life for people living on the sea. Their vicious hunger could not efface the triumph of what Santiago had achieved by himself those few days away from shore.
So it is with us as we struggle in the seas of life. Victory and defeat are two sides of the same old coin.
It is what we do with each side which grants us the motivation to continue living or fade as the gale winds sink us below the waves. Santiago sums it up very well:
“But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.”
The sea holds many joys as well as sorrows. Don’t allow the sharks in their malignant determination consume all that you are or could be.
G. D. Williams © 2019