Swimming Out of Our Depth

Swimming Out of Our Depth

In June 1975, Spielberg’s movie, Jaws, became a blockbuster. Chilling in its unpredictability, the movie left a searing mark on the imaginations of many.

photoDuring production, the mechanical shark sank on its first test run, and the crew started calling it “Flaws.” But something interesting developed as a result of the failure. Spielberg said, “I had no choice but to figure out how to tell the story without the shark. So I just went back to Alfred Hitchcock: ‘What would Hitchcock do in a situation like this?’… It’s what we don’t see which is truly frightening,” Spielberg said. With that insight, he started using the shark’s point-of-view, and in effect heightened the suspense exponentially.

It ruined ocean swimming for me.

That same summer, I worked as a lifeguard at Young Life’s Saranac Village in upstate New York. Each week, hundreds of high school campers came to enjoy sailing, swimming, canoeing, waterskiing, and even parasailing. Many would remember their experience as “the best week of their life,” because they also heard the greatest story ever told.

4YoungLifeCamp22One week, a powerboat driver pulling a water-skier failed to see some campers in a canoe. Fortunately, the kids bailed before the motorboat careened into their vessel.

No one was hurt, but they hauled the wrecked canoe up on the beach.

If you’ve been around Young Life, you know the staff had to make up a funny story about how that canoe got so mangled. With the horror of Jaws on everyone’s mind, they spun the legend of a great white “lake” shark. In its youth, the baby shark adapted to fresh water by swimming up the St. Lawrence Seaway from the ocean. Over time, it worked its way through smaller tributaries into Saranac Lake, while growing bigger every year. Right!

But the tall tale didn’t end with a mythical shark lurking in dark waters like the Lochness monster.

At the same time, certain leaders had been teasing the kitchen staff about the sticky peanut butter bars served at lunch. The treat was so gooey and tough, you risked extracting all your fillings. It was perfect fodder to embellish the shark story.

Leaders explained to the campers that leftover bars had been dumped in the lake. The scent drew the alleged shark to the camp’s waterfront. After gorging on the bars, it subsequently lost all its teeth. Thus, they nicknamed the shark, “Gums.” One leader added, “Believe me—it’s far worse to be gummed to death.”

1PropertyShot-SNV1The very next week, the camp hosted an inner-city group. The kids had never been on a waterfront, and therefore, were slightly more gullible. Leaders recounted the infamous story of Gums. The twisted canoe remain on the beach as tangible proof.

“Ah dudes, you jus messin’ wid us,” one kid surmised.

So the boat drivers schemed a live skit to bolster the tale. On the second evening at twilight, the Program Director told all campers to meet at the boathouse for a canoe safety demonstration. One driver made a fake shark fin large enough to hide behind. He wore a black wetsuit, a snorkeled mask, and flippers to stay undetected and swim faster than normal.

Naturally, I was in on the prank. I paddled in front of the kids and purposely capsized the canoe to show them what to do. In the dimming light, as I struggled in the water, the “fin” suddenly surfaced and began circling behind me. The kids went absolutely wild, pointing and screaming for me to get out of the water. I played dumb of course. You can imagine the pandemonium. In the end, I didn’t get gummed, but the threat in their minds proved hair-raising enough. All week long, campers and staff alike laughed and joked about the elaborate hoax.

photoThree summers ago, I discovered this fish had been caught right where I like to swim.

It wasn’t a shark, but it gave me pause!

Think about the symbolism of swimming with sharks. Does the thought make you want to take flight or are you drawn to adventure in spite of inherent risks?

“I’m not saying that everyone should swim with sharks,” said fashion model and celebrity, Heidi Klum, “But sometimes you have to jump over your own shadow in order to learn something that you will never forget for the rest of your life. Then you know you can conquer your fears.”

Wise words.

photoTruth be told, I’m Walter Mitty-ish. I’d rather NOT hop on a doorless helicopter with a drunken pilot, heading into a gnarly storm over open water only to end up in the ocean surrounded by sharks. (If you’ve seen the current movie, you know exactly what I mean). When Walter Mitty made the colossal decision to step into that helicopter, his life would never be the same.


C.S. Lewis said, “Paddling (near the shore) is of little consequence. What matters, what Heaven desires and Hell fears, is precisely that further step, out of our depth, out of our own control.”[i]

What do sharks represent in your world?


[i] –From “A Slip of the Tongue,” The Weight of Glory, by C.S. Lewis


  1. this is not easy to figure out! it’s tempting to lose the symbolism i think you’re asking about and go with spiders or snakes OR sharks, but i am pretty sure that’s not what you mean. after wrestling with the thought i feel that my deepest fear about the challenge in facing life is the impending losses that will come my way. and how do you overcome the pain of those by “swimming” with them? does it mean holding onto faith? maybe it means truly believing that heaven will wipe away the pain of our earthly losses? what do you think?
    suzee B

    • Suzee, sorry if my post was sort of roundabout–like what’s the point here? I wanted to have a little fun with an old story (The Infamous Gums) from my life as many of my posts have been heavy and serious. But my point is this–real or imagined, fear is fear and it can keep you from living fully.
      I think your angst about impending losses is entirely valid. End of life issues aren’t easy at all. And there are other losses for people at every stage of life. We’re swimming with sharks the minute we are born in earthly bodies, and we don’t know what life will do to us–some of it not our choice at all. We also don’t know what God will require of us. Some will be martyrs. Some will be persecuted. Some will be widowed. But as Marilynne Robinson says in her new book, Lila, life is a deep mystery and the only real answer is the grace of God. Whatever we have to go through here, whatever sharks are thrown in our pot, God will make good of it for eternity. Because alive or dead or suffering…we are His.

  2. Abandonment. Nothing has scared me more than being unloved, finding out love wasn’t real, being unimportant to whomever I’ve given my heart to. Shark attacks for me were two divorces, an alcoholic father showing me what I most feared, and being used and demeaned because of my desperate need to be loved.
    My recovery through Celebrate Recovery and Healing Is A Choice (New Life Ministries) has shown me that Jesus is nothing like those men of my past except in gender. That Jesus is the Holy Shark Barrier Reef. Safety and love are unconditional and trustworthy in Jesus.

    I’ve had two dreams where my two kids and I were bobbing on a sodden couch far out in the ocean, far from land, far from everything. The couch was slowly sinking, of course, and way deep down through the blue waters I could see huge sharks circling. HUGE sharks, so many, countless, and there was NO way to save my kids and myself. The utter hopelessness was clear.

    And then something else was clear: I was safe. The power of Jesus guaranteed our safety, even though there was nothing concrete and evident. I felt like the dreams told me that I don’t have to SEE something protective, some shark net or approaching helicopter, but that the hopelessness of our situation made it finally possible for me to hand it to Jesus. I was completely powerless, so completely powerless that no clever or creative thinking, no bargaining, no self-denial or sacrifice could save us. Then,empty-handed, I was open to Jesus.

    Excellent post. Thank you.

    • Linda! Wow, what a dream! Amazing picture of powerlessness. Thank you so much for sharing for others to read.