Mental resilience

Ernest Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” and I have a complicated relationship. 

When I was a senior in high school, a friend of mine encouraged me to read it, but in the infinite wisdom of my younger mind, I found it to be completely pointless and a total waste of time. 

For those who have yet to read it or might need a refresher, it’s a novel with a remarkably simple plot: an old man at sea, despite having not caught any fish for 84 days, chooses to continue fishing and goes out once more. After an intense struggle, he makes the catch of his life, a marlin. 

During his trip back to the shore, however, the sharks tragically eat the marlin he caught despite his efforts to protect it. 

I remember heatedly discussing the meaning of the story with others, thinking they were reading too much into the story. It seemed to me that the man just didn’t know when to quit, that his struggle against the sharks was in vain. 

Yet, as I have grown older and more experienced since leaving behind my “screenager” years, I have come to understand and appreciate the old man’s effort.

The credo behind the old man’s mindset is presented at his lowest moment when he’s
losing the fish of his career. Still, he persists in trying to defend his catch, affirming to himself that “a man can be destroyed but not defeated.” 

When I first read this, the words rolled right past me; why would the two not go together? I didn’t yet understand the value of standing for something. 

After all, if you’ve been “destroyed,” wouldn’t it follow to accept defeat? This seemed foolish rather than resilient. 

At the time, though, I had an inexperienced worldview that didn’t understand commitment and long-term meaning. After all, excessive toil is worthless if all we really are is floating through life, and it would follow that the old man was a fool when not accepting defeat.

This is simply untrue; submitting to your situation and bailing is often resigning yourself to incapability, either imagined or in reality. Believing you’re wholly the product of the hand you’ve been dealt, within reason, is often a naïve view of life. 

With more time and life experience, I have come to see the value in taking an active approach to life and choosing to do what you can to influence your situation. There is value in becoming a person who stands for something, like family, your community or your faith. 

It is a good thing to be resilient and persist despite the odds. It is virtuous to work to become something greater than your situation. 

Living in a way where you stand for something provides a way to actively live out meaning in life instead of just passively accepting what comes to you. That is good.

I’ve come to appreciate the resiliency of the old man and his effort not yielding to the sharks. He told himself he would go and catch a fish, and followed through on his word without faltering. Even when it was difficult, he followed through. 

When the fishing line broke his skin, when watching the fulfillment of his life’s purpose be brutally taken from him, even then he followed through. 

He knew he could quit and go home, but he refused to do so. He chose to try to overcome. 

After having made commitments that last longer than a semester, albeit few in number, I’ve come to understand why the old man went out again after four months of not even a nibble. Sometimes, things that are worth it take time, and you just have to do them. 

Just because something is hard doesn’t mean it isn’t beneficial. Mental resilience, being able to say no to yourself, is an important step of maturing. 

Although I used to think the old man was full of it, I’ve come to see that “it” is wisdom. It was an unfortunate situation to be in, when all that was left of the marlin was its skeleton. 

Yet, at the end of the day, the old man persevered and chose not to let himself be destroyed.