Photograph by Magnus Lundgren / Nature PL

Without Fear

words by willow defebaugh


As the ocean’s top predator, sharks are fearsome creatures. And yet—much like fear itself—they are deeply misunderstood.

“A boat is safe in the harbor. But this is not the purpose of a boat.”

Paulo Coelho

When I was a child, I was full of fear. I have spent much of my adult life trying to explore the depths of this fear: where it came from, whether it was born with me or if I came to know it. Many of my fears were common for kids: being kidnapped, a tragedy befalling my parents, monsters in my basement. One fear was particularly persistent, though, and somewhat irrational given that I grew up far from anywhere this nightmare could maim me: sharks.


Sharks are as primordial as fear itself; scientists estimate that they have been gliding through the ocean for more than 400 millions years, meaning they predate even dinosaurs. They are also ancient in another sense: the planet’s longest living vertebrate is the Greenland shark at 400 years. And much like fear, sharks can be found in many spaces, shapes; they swim in waters both shallow and deep, and range from the scant eight inch dwarf lantern sharks to the staggering 55 foot whale shark. They are equally relentless, needing to be in constant motion to avoid sinking.


It isn’t hard to understand how sharks emerged as the ocean’s top predators. Almost all sharks have tough skin, covered in tooth-like scales. They have rows upon rows of teeth that regularly replenish themselves, varying from triangular spears to those more akin to serrated knives. And their feeding behavior is terrifying; they circle their prey, often coming out of nowhere. The more stimuli that is present alongside food—rapid swimming or just sheer numbers—the more their excitement can grow, sometimes even resulting in cannibalistic feeding frenzies.


While sharks’ prey can range from lesser sharks and other fish to seals and dolphins, their diets rarely include humans. Swimmers have only a one in 11.5 million chance of a violent encounter with one. And any attacks are most likely a result of misunderstanding (confusing us for their natural prey) or self-defense: them being afraid of us. And they have good reason to be, since humans have caused a sharp decline in shark populations. An estimated 100 million are killed each year, mostly for shark fin soup. Rising temperatures and habitat destruction are also factors in the decline of these creatures—which, as apex predators, play a key role in ocean ecology.


Much like sharks, fear itself is deeply misunderstood. Out of balance, it can devour us—but it can also be a powerful tool for survival and keeping us alive. Think of the climate crisis; it’s entirely understandable for us to be afraid, especially given recent findings that we are on track to breach the critical 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit threshold in the next five years. But that sense of terror is also healthy; without fear, we might not know that we have something precious to lose


For all of these reasons and more, one of my favorite questions to ask people is what’s your greatest fear? (I’m working on my small talk, I promise.) I find their answers reveal a lot about the role they have allowed fear to play in giving shape to their lives—sometimes for the worse, yes, but also for the better. I’m thinking of the person who fears war and thus fights for peace; the person who fears darkness and thus always endeavors to find the light within it; the person who fears a world on fire and thus runs toward the flames.


Much of my own fear abated until I was in my late twenties and it all seemed to resurge in one distilled form: a fathomless fear of death. After a few years of soul searching, I discovered what was at the bottom of that sea; I was afraid of dying without ever truly getting to be myself in this life. Braving those depths and the long swim to the surface that followed was the scariest thing I have ever done. But now, I float with gratitude for it—for my fear of dying taught me to live.

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