I really like nature documentaries. As in, I could give you a super detailed play by play of numerous scenes in Planet Earth II. As in, sometimes I think about animals more than I think about people. As in, I understand people best when I can relate them to some random animal factoid. Did you know some species of sharks have to keep moving forward in order to breathe? Take a minute to actually imagine that. A predator as stigmatized as a shark hovering over you, powerfully ripping through the water, overtaking you with one big swishing slice of its tail… and all it would take for such a magnificent creature to drown is a lack of activity.
Over time, certain sharks have literally lost the ability and proper anatomy for buccal pumping, which is how the sharks of old used to breathe through this crazy cool process of pulling water into their mouths and over their gills with some sick cheek muscles. Many sharks are still able to respire with the older method, but it requires them to be somewhat stagnant. Buccal pumping species tend to lay on the bottom of the ocean floor for extended periods of time. They stop swimming and they leave themselves in a potentially vulnerable state, in order to breathe.
As sharks evolved and became increasingly active, it became more efficient to ram water through their mouths and let it flow through their gills by swimming at rapid rates. This method of survival created a new breed of shark: obligate ram ventilators, a species that will drown if they ever physically stop swimming. Twelve species fall under this class of shark. They also have this process called sleep swimming, which is where parts of their brains lose activity while they remain in movement. Sleep swimming is the only way they can get any rest and it requires them to forcibly turn off parts of themselves to maintain such high levels of activity.
I can’t help but see the correlation between sharks in constant movement and humans on the relentless run towards success. In my context, survival has always been synonymous with success and success has often been defined in individualistic terms. Surviving means ceaselessly reaching towards an elusive idea of progress. Humans are changing themselves, evolving, and morphing their species into creatures on the move. How can we sustain a state of perennial progress as lone individuals? Well, I’ve always done it by expunging my emotions from existence.
Sadness, anger, anxiety, guilt, annoyance, disappointment… I can go on. Certain feelings are incredibly painful. Sometimes, they barrel you over and leave you lying on the ocean floor struggling to breathe. Emotions hurt; they force people to stop and endure agonizing struggles. When sentiment becomes too overwhelming, people stop. They stop moving forward. They stop progressing. They adopt a state of stagnancy. There’s this incessant rumble always advocating for reflection, yet the world doesn’t seem to leave much time for healthy contemplation within its chaos. Emotions create vulnerability and vulnerability has always seemed like more of a weakness than a strength to me.
Unfortunately, I’ve come to realize there is no amount of movement that can rid me of those pesky feelings scraping at my tear ducts. I’ve always been a runner, or maybe for the sake of my beloved shark analogy, a swimmer. But it turns out people can only swim for so long before they burn out. In order to appear successful, I’ve shed all the excess weight slowing me down and now I’m nothing more than a human version of a mako shark. I’ve programmed myself to stop feeling weighty emotions. I only know how to survive, how to be okay, by moving. Get up and do another day. Push away the despair trying to drag you down into the deep. Don’t let yourself stop, certainly not long enough to genuinely feel. Like a sleeping great white, I’ve shut down aspects of myself to remain on the restless rise—a journey built on ideals of efficiency and singular existence. Ironically, it isn’t the exhaustion that is going to force me to stop in the end. Instead, it will be an awareness of the inherently sinful and dangerous nature present in obligate ram ventilators.
I have been wrongfully striving towards a mode of individualism that sets me apart from God. Without all those emotions I often classified as negative, I’ve also stopped feeling and understanding my own brokenness. If we truly pursue survival without genuine feeling, then we will never understand how deeply we need God. I thought I was swimming away from weakness, from vulnerability. I could never quite comprehend that I was simultaneously running away from the one thing I desperately needed most. The more I push away pain, the more I remain superficial in my relationship with God. A flourishing spiritual life is not found within a perfect, well maintained appearance. If we think we can do everything on our own, then we haven’t left any room for God to move.
On some level, brokenness must be embraced. Vulnerability is an integral component to a personal relationship with God. Don’t wipe away your tears before ever allowing them to fall. Don’t evolve into a creature in need of constant movement. Instead, recognize the brokenness intrinsic to your being and look to God within it. Depend on Him, not on progress. Allow yourself to pause and lament over the lost. Let yourself be vulnerable. Grant yourself a few moments to remember how the old sharks used to breathe. Those motionless outbursts of humanity are a way of survival too. Perhaps, it is the obligate ram ventilators that have the biggest weakness of all: an inability to feel assured enough in God’s character to ever truly rest.