The old man, the sea and life’s obstacles
When I was a teenager, I had the opportunity to read Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea. The book was small, and I could’ve read it in 30 minutes. But when I opened it, I realized there was barely any dialogue. There were no explosions nor zombies. Since I was sixteen, it was more like, I opened it, and there weren’t any naked ladies, so I wasn’t interested. I put it down because my 16-year-old brain thought the book a bummer.
Our teacher also gave us an assignment that guaranteed I didn’t have to read it. A group of four of us had to produce a short audio version of one of the chapters. So we got together with our tape recorder after school, we chose a random scene and recorded it.
A couple of decades later, I picked up the book again, but I didn’t put it down this time. The Old Man and The Sea was now the best short story I have ever read. The book didn’t change, but I did. By then, I had experienced my fair share of setbacks and heartbreaks, which prepared me to appreciate the book. Now, something in me understood the old fisherman.
Leaving the culture in which I grew up behind, becoming an immigrant, getting rejected by the American school system, pursuing my soulmate in a different city, starting and losing a business, arbitrations, and litigations, the list goes on, hopefully, not for too long. But you get it, and more importantly, I got the fisherman.
I understood the idea of getting up every morning even when I didn’t feel like it and working regardless of the outcome because I respect the work.
At the heart of this understanding is one of the reasons why people are obsessed with Hemingway. He understood life in a way that few writers do. That’s why it makes sense that he famously stated, “life breaks everyone, and afterward some are strong at the broken places.”
I’ve only read a few pieces of Hemingway, and not all of his work has been an immediate hit for me. I choose instead to read about how he lived his life and the advice he gives others on writing, drinking, and living.
That’s probably one of the reasons I love Midnight in Paris; I get another chance to watch Adrien Brody play Dali talk about his rhinoceros visions, and I see Hemingway give pearls of wisdom like,
“If it’s bad, I’ll hate it because I hate bad writing, and if it’s good, I’ll be envious and hate all the more. You don’t want the opinion of another writer.”
“All cowardice comes from not loving or not loving well, which is the same thing. And then the man who is brave and true looks death squarely in the face, like some rhino-hunters I know or Belmonte, who is truly brave… It is because they make love with sufficient passion, to push death out of their minds… until it returns, as it does, to all men… and then you must make really good love again.”
More succinctly, “who wants a fight?!?”
In a roundtable in Cannes, Woody Allen said all the historical characters in this movie were not accurate but just comedic exaggerations of who they were. But Hemingway feels so real, like somebody filmed him in his prime.
Maybe the pursuits of hunting and fishing are there for us to understand life, too. But Hemingway brilliantly executed analogies that resonated. While I am not much of a fisherman, when Hemingway speaks of fishing, I get the sense that he is talking about way more than fishing, and he transported me into the old man’s boat, and I shared this secret that this story is about way more than just the fishing. It’s a story about life and its setbacks. And in life, there are moments where everything can go wrong. Not only can everything go wrong, but you can be shunned by those around you because everything in your life seems to go wrong.
People thought the fisherman was sala’o, which translates to salty, but it refers to someone who doesn’t have good luck. But even when nothing seemed to go right, that didn’t dissuade the fisherman from getting up every morning and doing the work.
Think of the tragedy and the heartbreak that comes from failure and then add to that the social isolation that comes from people avoiding you because they are afraid of being around you because of your “bad luck.” You have to get up day after day in that space because you have to get to work.
As human beings, we are all faced with situations like these. We might feel like this pandemic is precisely that. There has been setback after setback in the middle of this pandemic. We might not feel like it, but our only option is to work regardless of the outcome.
We have to choose a path and come back to it every morning even when we don’t feel like it, even when we have not gotten where we want to be, even when people around us don’t want to be around us or avoid us because they think we are bad news.
Our work doesn’t care.
It’s impassive to our mood, to our feelings, to our whims. It’s there waiting for us. And one thing is for sure. We can do the work and maybe not get the results we want. But we can’t ever get the results we want if we don’t work.
If you enjoyed this essay, you may enjoy my book, “A Kick in the Balls.”