More than one year into a global pandemic made all the more punishing by economic, environmental, and racial crises, many of us are gripped by fear and uncertainty. How do we manage these intense and often all-consuming emotions? What can we learn from people who not only face risk but welcome it? Bonnie Tsui, author of the 2020 bestseller Why We Swim, examines these questions in the new Scribd Original The Uncertain Sea. Here, she shares some of that wisdom.
SCRIBD: Clearly, this story was inspired by the unsettling events of the past year — from Covid to the recession to political mayhem. What prompted you to tackle the subject of fear and uncertainty head-on, right in the middle of everything? What was your thought process?
BONNIE TSUI: Like so many of us in these turbulent times, I spent a lot of the last year grappling with how to conduct myself in a changed world filled with so many unknowns. Day after day, a fire hose of information forces us to recalculate risks and modify our behavior. The unceasing nature of that is exhausting. We’re not used to being afraid all the time. I wanted to interrogate that on a very basic level: What is fear? How does it manifest across animal species? How have we humans evolved to deal with this response to threats? What are the things we confront in modern times — and in this specific moment — that make fear responses particularly corrosive or problematic, on both a personal and a societal level? And are there ways to think about fear, risk, and resilience that are ultimately helpful and hopeful?
You begin The Uncertain Sea with a hair-raising story about your friend Ron Elliott, an underwater photographer who specializes in great white sharks. Most of us can’t imagine doing what he does, yet there’s a lot we can learn from him. What is it about Ron that made him someone you wanted to focus on?
Ron is a person who chooses to explore a place that many of us fear the most: the dark depths of the ocean, teeming with great white sharks. To him, it’s not a place of fear. It’s a place of wonder, full of quiet and calm and beauty. He spent decades observing the sharks and never got into serious trouble — until he did. And then he had to deal with the long tail of consequences: pain, surgery, recovery, more surgery, the feeling that maybe something he loved wasn’t ever going to be the same. And yet he chooses to go back to that place, in a pandemic, no less. I wanted to know what it was like to do that — to voluntarily go back to the very thing that bit you. To confront trauma and move through it to something new. I wanted to know if there was something we could learn from him that could be applied to the other side of all this.
What types of things scare you? How do you manage those fears?
I’m not afraid of sharks per se, but I do have a healthy respect for the ocean. I spend a lot of time out there, and I’ve seen people get hurt. That’s scary. I manage my fears by preparing as much as possible, and then I let it go — and I do it all because what I’m seeking out there is just so purely joyful. But, as we’ve been reminded in this last crazy year, you can’t control everything. The uncertainty is the thing that really shakes your foundation. For me, probing at those edges, peering into the dark places with my flashlight, helps me to find equilibrium.
Like your friend Ron, you’re at home in the water. Have you ever been in situations that scared you and made you hesitant to go back?
Oh, sure! I’ve been surfing on wild, roily days and a big set will arrive and scare me out of my mind. I come back to what my longtime surf buddy Caroline Paul — she’s a former San Francisco firefighter and really my model for how to live an adventurous life — always says: You always have more air than you think. Basically, I remind myself of the things I know how to do, the protocols for getting safely back to shore. That’s calming. You talk yourself back to what you know.
Sharks are a fascinating through line in this story. They’re a symbol for everything that scares us, yet in fact it’s we humans who are the scary ones. Can you discuss that a bit?
We’re terrified of sharks. In our imaginations, they are prehistoric killing machines. It’s true that they are very good at being apex ocean predators. But an average of six people per year die from shark-related encounters. Humans kill one hundred million sharks per year. That’s the actuarial reality of our relationship with this fish, but our psychological and cultural perspectives radically distort that. I love thinking about that mental pretzel.
Has Ron invited you to meet the sharks? Would you go?
Nope, times two. I understand all of the above intellectually, and I still don’t have a desire to do that!
You have two young children. How do you help them cope with fear and uncertainty?
I remember being afraid of things as a kid and not feeling like grown-ups took those fears seriously, so I really try to let my boys feel that they can talk to me about anything that’s on their minds, no matter what it is. To be gentle and receptive when they want to share.
Do you have any favorite books that you turn to in stressful times?
I actually don’t reread books very often. I gobble up books very quickly and am always looking for a new one to read. I think that’s how I occupy my restless mind. I am happiest when I’m neck-deep in a new novel. That’s just the best.
How’s your anxiety level these days?
Very much mitigated by immersion.
If you were to give a one-sentence piece of advice for how to deal with uncertainty, what would it be?
Think about what you know and what you do want to happen, then work to make it so.
The Uncertain Sea by Bonnie Tsui