Note from Heidi: I started writing this essay when I was 20 years old, and I’ve never stopped editing it. It is part-spiritual autobiography, part-theological reflection. This essay is probably the best answer I have to the question, “what’s up with the shark thing?” Enjoy.
The sea is black, the sky is blue. Waves lap at my vision relentlessly, hungrily. I feel it coming towards me—a massive, floating thing with empty eyes and skin like sandpaper. Fear tastes like salt water. I try to stay above the waves but it’s pointless to swim to shore. Between the chop I see a fin, the flick of a tail. When you think of a shark attack you imagine the color red, spreading like a smoke signal in the water, but as I look up all I see is brilliant sunshine. Blue, on blue, on blue. And then—
Do we choose our fears, or do they choose us?
Legs jolt like a thing fallen from the sky, and I wake up in a dark bedroom. The rush of feelings comes—relief, exhaustion, and a vague sense of humiliation. Dreams make me feel gullible. I stare at the ceiling wondering how I fell prey to the sharp-toothed fiction tonight. Was it something I ate? Anxiety about the coming week? Briefly I consider how the dark room reminds me of the ocean. I imagine a great white shark swimming in similarly dark spaces, secretly, off the coast of Connecticut. I scatter these thoughts, and fall asleep.
I have been afraid of sharks for as long as I can remember. It’s not an uncommon fear—it’s a lucrative one, as far as film producers are concerned. I remember watching the movie Jaws as a kid with my two sisters; an obvious choice, given its PG rating. It turns out the movie was more than I bargained for. Jaws was at least partially responsible for the acute anxiety I felt whenever going to the beach, or pool parties, or even showering as a kid. Yes, with my imagination I conjured up sharks that lived just on the other side of the drain, and swam beneath my feet whenever cloudy water pooled at my ankles. Wherever there was water, no one was safe.
Jaws seemed to have the opposite effect on my younger sister, Dana, who dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. On one trip to the beach she brought home a dead baby shark, preserved in formaldehyde, purchased at one of those touristy seashell shops. The shark remained in her room next to the lava lamp, both being of a similar size. I avoided her room at all costs. When we went to the library Dana checked out stacks of picture books about the ocean. I would flip through them too, apprehensive at each turn of the page because even the picture of a shark, jaws unhinged, could set my heart racing.
But as they say, if you can’t beat them, join them. I began to learn, with my sister, everything that an elementary school kid could possibly know about sharks. Sprawled on the carpet we would debate which species of shark were the coolest. Consider the giant whale shark, the elusive oceanic whitetip, the descriptively titled ragged-tooth shark. We would marvel at the fierce bull shark, who could survive for sustained periods in fresh water as well as salt. We would confuse the names of the megamouth shark, a doofy-looking plankton eater, and the megaladon, a prehistoric demon of a shark over three times as a large as a great white. We could identify the different species in our favorite shark-shaped gummy snacks: a tiger shark! A thresher! A scuba man! Ultimately it was a comfort to study the thing that I feared. If I could understand my fear, I thought, I could control it.
It wasn’t cool to be into sharks in high school, but sometime around college I remembered my fascination with sharp-toothed, finned fishes. I convinced my dad to “adopt” me a great white shark as a Christmas present, which was more or less a glorified way of making a donation to the World Wildlife Foundation. In exchange for the donation I received a small stuffed animal, a great white shark—and thus began the collection of shark plushies that lives on my bed today. My apartment is full of random shark-themed objects, gifts from friends who know me well: shark stickers and shark greeting cards, shark t-shirts, shark bottle openers, a lemon juicer in the shape of a shark’s pointed nose. I have no strong desire to skydive or bungee jump, but every year I enter a raffle in hopes of going on a shark tagging expedition (I’ve never won). I dream of seeing a shark face to face in clear waters, behind the safety of a cage.
In clear waters.
There are nightmares, yes, where the water obscures my vision and loss of life and limb seem inevitable. But there are daydreams, too. Sometimes I imagine a world in which sharks can fly. Not with wings, or on the winds of a hurricane in some stupid B-level movie, but—something else.
A dorsal fin breaks the surface, then snout, then the shadow of a body glides out of deep water into sunlight, glistening with salt. It’s magnificent, and not at all scary. Sharks glide unmenacingly over windswept hills, darting upward towards peachy clouds. I can picture an oceanic whitetip lingering in the air, like a hawk hovering motionless on the wind. Their smooth gray skin, like sandpaper if you rub it the wrong way, would assume the colors of sunrise like the smoothest of granite rocks—their white underbellies glowing most extravagant of all. In the misty morning, I imagine their tails whipping horizontally through the fog. Their heavy bodies materialize from the white void, a vanishing point at the edge of the parking lot—
Suddenly, I like this idea less. The fog is too much like the ocean. There is too much of the unknown.
Fear never goes away, it only unmasks itself. My fear was never a triangular fin, sharp teeth, bloody water. It was always fear of the unknown—mixed with the perennial fear of death which is, ultimately, fear of the unknown. Legs kicking in the water, the dark unknown below me, the blue unknown above me. We humans are caught in the middle, so far from land and that imaginary beach where a single set of footprints persuades us we were never alone.
And yet I believed in something, ever since I was a kid. I believed in a giant sharp-toothed fish that I had never seen, except in pictures, smaller versions at the aquarium, in a formaldehyde jar, and a plastic copy of the real thing I saw in a movie when I was eight. What a strange faith this is. It started as belief in the very worst, a life-threatening nemesis informed by tradition and the rules I learned as a kid. Don’t swim too far from shore—learn to tread water—we’re going to need a bigger boat. Then I sought to know more, on my own terms. I read books from the library and learned to love a few sharks, the gentler ones first. I grew up.
One day, on the sandy dunes of Ocean Beach, San Francisco, I scoped out the rocky peak of land off the coast of the bay. The Farallon Islands, one of the most densely populated areas of great white sharks in the world. During winter they migrate to places far out in the Pacific, for some obscure reason, but for the rest of the year they explore the coast, where the ocean is ripe with fatty seals. I couldn’t see them, but I believed they were there. I envisioned sharks swimming through cloudy bay waters, triangular, gray, and beautiful.
That same summer I started going to churches across the city, searching for the thing I couldn’t see but believed was always there.
I felt the edges of my faith in dark, murky waters. Not the faith of footprints in the sand, but faith in a God who is present nevertheless, floating in waters not far away. Lord of the Great Unknown. I found faith in a God who reminds me how precious it is to inhabit flesh and blood. Faith in a God who would let me swim in open waters, if only I learned fear and humility in this world that is not my own. Faith in a God with teeth. I scour the library for books on theology, turning pages with fear and trembling. There are no clear facts or easy answers. The more I learn, the deeper the water gets. Sometimes I give up and stare out the library window, searching for sharks that might hide among the clouds like coral reefs. It’s this sense of wonder that keeps me going.
We learn more about the ocean every day, digging holes in deeper trenches, dropping cameras in dark water. I’m no less afraid of it. On trips to the beach I run towards the water, splash knee-deep, and run right out letting the waves chase me. Faith like a child. I follow shark news on the internet, and marvel at the story of a cageless diver who swims with a great white off the coast of Hawaii. The pictures are beautiful. When I go to bed and turn off the lights I imagine sharks in the shadows, hovering above my seaweed hair. Sometimes it still wakes me up at night, fear of the unknown.
And I cherish this fear that has taught me so much about faith, dreaming of clear water, and sharks that can swim in air as free as ocean. I wonder where my soul will go in the end, not up into the sky but deep into the heart of things. Wherever great white sharks migrate in the winter.
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we shall see face to face.