Big and now


“HOW was your dive?” I asked Mathew as he disembarked from the dive boat.I was expecting something like “Great! Fantastic!” After all we were on what can be described as a diving paradise.

The island of Layang Layang is just a tiny speck in the ocean. It is a full hour’s flight straight north from Kota Kinabalu. Talking about in the middle of nowhere, this is it. But it is a veritable underwater Garden of Eden. Such is the attraction of this underwater heaven that it draws thousands of visitors from all over the world every year. Thus, I was taken aback when Mathew answered, with a disappointing shrug of his shoulders, “nothing to see”.

“Nothing to see! In the Garden of Eden?”

Perhaps Mathew can be forgiven. He belongs to the old school of scuba divers who took to the sport before we were concerned about the environment and conservation. Yes, Mathew was an underwater hunter and as such he had eyes only for the big fishes.

I suppose old habits die hard and in this case it was compounded by the fact that there had been much expectation about the possible encounter with the somewhat bizarre species of shark called the hammerhead. If you wonder why it is so named, take a look at the picture of this fish and you will know. When we arrived at the island resort, the place was buzzing with news of sightings of a school of that usual fish.

So it seemed that Mathew went underwater with the song “I Have Eyes Only For You” playing in his head. He was oblivious to the myriad of shapes, riot of colours and thousands of exotic creatures of the deep. He spent his underwater time peering into the deep blue hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive school.

However, Mathew was not the only one similarly afflicted by this myopia and one-track mind syndrome. Most of the members of my group were similarly obsessed. Conversation at breakfast, lunch, dinner and in between was all about “hammerheads, hammerheads, hammerheads”.

One of my friends, Eric, was so fixated with this creature that he resorted to buying toy plastic sharks instead of rubber ducks for his bath. At least he was not as foolhardy as John, who in desperation, dived to beyond the legal limits for sports diving of 40 metres deep. It is believed that on hot days the sharks stay deep in the cold waters below. It was a blazingly hot week while we were in Layang Layang.

At first I found this obsession somewhat tiresome and incomprehensible. However, now that I have time to reflect on it, I realise that my diving buddies were displaying a common human trait – a propensity to focus on the big and spectacular as opposed to appreciating the small and steady.

We even coined the expression ‘big break’. Yes, many of us are always looking for the ‘big break’. It is exemplified by the fact that every week thousands of people spend a tidy sum of their earnings buying lottery tickets in the hope that one day they will strike it big. Never mind if their chance is less than one in tens of million; never mind if the only people who go laughing to the bank are the owners of the lottery concern; never mind if when they do ‘strike’, it is usually one of the small consolation prizes which in fact could be less than the amount they have spent on tickets in the past.

Looking for the one big break is like the desperate boxer who depends on one wild haymaker (powerful wild swing) to win his fight rather than building a foundation for victory with solid jabs and steady stream of quick punches.

Three days into the trip and with nary the shadow of a hammerhead in sight, my friend Mathew exhibited another common human trait — impatience. He decided to pack it in early and left the paradise island. It was a good thing that we did not spot any hammerhead in the subsequent dives. I wouldn’t have the heart to tell him our good news and his bad news.

Andrew was not so lucky. Some years ago, we were on a dive trip in Thailand, plying from the island of Phuket northwards to Burma. The west coast of Thailand is noted for the presence of manta rays. These magnificent giants can grow up to seven metres wide and they glide in the sea like some alien spacecraft. A close encounter with a manta is an awesome experience.

For a whole week, we saw many things but that creature eluded us. Andrew got tired of looking and decided to call it quits. He hung up his diving gear, skipped the last dive and chose sunbathing instead. As luck would have it, we ran into the gentle giant feeding in the shallows in about 20 to 30 feet of water. We sat on the sandy bottom for a good 15 minutes watching the gentle giant swirling in loops and circles as it fed on plankton and krill. Poor Andrew, all he got for his pain was sunburn for sleeping on the open deck.

I remember when I was young, Sister Martha, the nun who taught us in Sunday School used to say, “Patience is a virtue”.  For many years I used to think of this saying in religious terms. You know, something about practising patience in the expectation of being justly rewarded in the next life.

Recently, I took to reading books about EQ (emotional quotient). In these books it is expounded that the ability to manage one’s emotions (thus, having a high emotional quotient) is one of the foundations for personal success. One of the hallmarks of high EQ is what the author termed as ‘delay gratification’.

In a study called the ‘marshmallow challenge’, psychologist Walter Mischel presented a group of four-year-olds some marshmallows (soft spongy candy, apparently a favourite among American kids) saying they each could have one immediately but the kids who were prepared to wait for 15 to 20 minutes could have two marshmallows. Some kids could not control their impulse and immediately grabbed one. A few others were able to restrain themselves and were rewarded with two after the interval. The study tracked the kids’ performance to after they graduated from high school. Interestingly, it was found that there was a clear correlation between the ability to control one’s impulse and success. So, patience is not only a virtue but also a necessity for a happy and successful existence.

I am reminded of a Zen story about a great swordsman called Matajuro. He went to the famous dueller Banzo.

“Master, I want to be a great swordsman like you. If I work hard, how many years will it take me?”

“Oh, maybe 10 years,” the master swordsman replied.

“My father is getting old, and soon I must take care of him. If I work far more intensively, how long would it take me?”

“Oh, maybe 30 years.”

“Why is that?” asked Matajuro. “First you say 10 years and now 30 years. I will undergo any hardship to master this art in the shortest time!”

“Well,” said Banzo, “in that case you will have to remain with me for 70 years. A man in such a hurry as you are to get results seldom learns quickly.”

It is one of man’s weaknesses to wish for the big and spectacular, here    and now but let us be reminded of the Malay saying, “dikit-dikit jadi bukit”, which I liberally translate as “little by little it will become a mountain”. So contrary to the title of a popular self-help book ‘Don’t Sweat The Small Stuff’ I say, “Do sweat the small stuff”.

Before I sign off, just a few words to my friend Mathew.

“Oh by the way Mathew, the group that came after us ran into a school of hammerheads.”

The writer can be contacted at [email protected].