So my stepdaughter calls the other day - the one who lives here in Kona near me - and tells me she went out on a boat trip with a group of people and they decided to go pretty far out to see what interesting creatures they might find. When they are way out there they all get into the water. She says they did see two bottlenose dolphins, which is pretty special…usually we see spinner dolphins here in Hawaii near shore. But then they suddenly disappeared, and and pretty soon the likely reason for that appeared as a very large shape was spotted swimming right towards them.
We always say here in Hawaii we have no predators…no mountain lions, no bears, no alligators, no snakes…but we do have sharks. Yup. We got those.
It was one of those oceanic whitetips which are most famous for showing up at shipwrecks at sea and feasting on the remains. They are considered very dangerous, but mostly stay pretty far offshore, so running into one is rare unless you’re all the way out there. She says it was about 20 feet away from her and her friends. Nothing bad happened but it was sure something she would never forget. The photo in this post was taken by her friend who was in the water with them that day and is a professional photographer (used here with permission). So that is the actual guy she saw. She estimated it to be about 10 or 12 feet long.
My heart was in my throat thinking how close she came to being hurt - or worse. But she proceeded to share with me some of her recent work on her own fears, and why this encounter was so timely, and how much she learned from it. After we hung up, I thought about some of the work I’ve been doing on myself this week too, and why hearing about her experience was also very timely for me.
For many of us, fear can take up a rather large space within our psyches. And after a death of a loved one, it can inflate and warp and grow all kinds of ugly tendrils and unexpected warts and tumors. It manifests in various forms and can often be powerful enough to keep us from being able to live our lives to the fullest.
Grief encompasses many emotions, as we all know, and I’m not just talking about the famous “five stages”. Sadness, anger, yes, but also all kinds of other feelings such as frustration, exhaustion, confusion, hopelessness…and anxiety. Anxiety about how we are going to proceed in life without our loved one. Anxiety about paying the bills alone, eating alone, sleeping alone, raising children alone, driving alone…maybe anxiety about having to move house or date someone new, and definitely anxiety about losing anyone else close to us. This anxiety - these fears - can be paralyzing.
My stepdaughter’s shark encounter and subsequent lessons and thoughts reminded me of a conversation I had with a widowed friend last week too. This friend had recently returned from a trip abroad where she underwent a cleanse for several weeks. It was very remote, and she was very alone, as no one else there spoke English other than the doctors. She proceeded to explain how she found herself without anyone to talk to or much else to do other than wait for the next step in the cleanse program…a lot of time spent reading and walking and just…thinking. She became hyper aware of the negative thought forms that floated her way, almost constantly. She realized that was quite normal, but without any way to escape or talk through them with anyone, as the social creature she normally is, she struggled with how to cope.
After awhile, without much else to do about it anyway other than be miserable, she realized if she allowed those anxious and fearful thoughts to sit there and not allow her “monkey brain”, as she called it, to fight or react with more negativity, the bad clouds would dissipate. In other words, without anything to fight against, their power began to dissolve. That’s not to say the issues themselves went away so easily; just the worry and fear part in herself. She realized her monkey brain could only focus on the past or the future, but had no control of her now. Sitting in the present moment and just trying to be in it, she said, was the trick. The entire experience was enlightening for her in these unexpected ways, and I walked away from hearing about it with a lot to think about myself.
Back to my stepdaughter’s shark. On that day, she told me her reaction was imbued with a huge dose of fear. Being in the water so close to a shark like that was a life long fear of hers (and let’s face it, it’s probably one none of us want to imagine, let alone face). But to claw and rush back to the boat would bring attention to herself. Trying to desperately escape was not the way to react. The way to react would be to remain calm, bunch up in a group with the other swimmers, and try to appear as large as you can. Attitude was everything. Eventually, the shark would swim away, which it did.
I am happy to say I’ve never seen a shark in the water with me. But a long time ago now, I don’t even remember exactly when it was, but probably over ten years ago, Mike and I were standing in the water here in Kona in a place where the bottom drops off quite steeply. We were just standing there talking when suddenly a huge dark shadow rushed up from the depths and swooped within a foot or two of where we were standing. My heart leaped into my throat. It wasn’t a shark…it was a harmless, but HUGE, manta ray. It had to have been 10 or 12 feet across too. After it slid back into the deep Mike and I shared a laugh of relief and, at that point, giddiness, that we had seen that. But for the first moment, the unknown monster hurling itself towards us was very scary.
I most certainly do not have my own monkey brain in control. I’m a work in progress just like everyone else. But this week, life brought a few reminders into my purview. I’m about to go to court to try and keep my house. That itself is scary - it’s definitely the scariest thing I’ve had to face since Mike died. And if it doesn’t work out, it would mean leaving the place I shared so many memories with him; no matter how strong I want to be, I know I would have to face another enormous wave of grief - and fear - about that. So right now, the change is looming and circling much like a big shark. But I know, at least intellectually, that how I react to it will make all the difference. I probably won’t be that good at it. But it will be practice for me and I’m going to give it my best shot.
Some things we can choose to avoid. I would never choose to be in a small boat so far from shore that I can’t see land…and if I did find myself out there, I most certainly would never get in the water if I didn’t have to. I prefer to be able to touch the bottom when I’m in the ocean, and yes, it’s probably because I would rather not run into Mr. Shark. I also would never choose to fly halfway across the globe by myself like my friend did and stay in such a remote place for as long as she did. And it does make me realize that not choosing to do potentially scary things probably keeps me from having life-changing experiences. So that is one side of it this week for me. But the other side of it is, some things that happen to us we cannot choose. And here there be monsters.
Because there are, really and truly, all kinds of monsters out there - at least, things we perceive as monsters; things that spark fear and anxiety. Death, disease, bad people, unfair circumstances, the unknown, even just change itself - and our own internal dialogues on top of it all, which I mentioned last week is a big problem for me. I’m not a master of it all by any means; I don’t have any final answers. I’m just wanting to share what swam into my world this week. There is wisdom in there somewhere, and I’m going to keep working on it.