The wind was wicked on the open sea; it whipped waves as high as 30 feet.
In the middle of the storm was The Freedom, a small yacht that had begun its life closer to a kayak. Through the years, its owner, Jack, had built it, reinforced it, enlarged it until it was seaworthy. He fitted it with a bedroom and kitchen, too: The Little Houseboat That Could.
Jack had invited his brother, Matt, to sail around the world with him. That was some 13 months ago. They had never gotten along well; in fact, for most of their adult lives, they’d been estranged. But their mother’s death had made Jack want to repair the relationship. This trip — this test of wills, two men against the elements — was his solution.
And they had made it this far, through rain and loneliness, through sickness and sunshine, they had made it all the way here, to the Eastern Pacific, just 300 nautical miles from their San Diego home, when a derecho, the first and only on record in the Pacific, boasting gusts of more than 100 miles per hour, got them.
It sent The Freedom tossing and turning. The ship capsized. Jack and Matt were knocked out, and for all the world seemed destined to drown. But The Freedom had one last trick up its sleeve. As the undertow lashed, a piece of The Freedom’s hull swept underneath the floating bodies and carried them out of the storm.
They floated, unconscious, in the morning sun, for three miles, until they struck ground on a tiny island. Somehow, by some miracle, seemingly defying all laws of probability and physics, it existed, and it was their salvation.
The sudden halt as the raft struck shore jolted the men awake.
They sat up, the two brothers, and looked out upon their new circumstances: stranded, alone, on an island that no one knew about nor was likely to discover.
Jack stood up. “Guess we’d better get to work,” he said. “We’ll need fire, a fishing rod, and some way to strain the salt from the water.”
“Ok,” Matt said. “I’m going to gather my thoughts.”
“First, let’s figure out who can do what. I’m pretty good at starting fires, so I’ll do that. Can you work on fashioning a spear to catch fish with?”
“Why should I?” said Matt. “We’re all born with the right to certain, basic necessities. Food is definitely one of them. It’s a human right.”
“Yes,” said Jack, “except here we are, stranded on a desert island. I don’t think rights really apply here.”
“They apply everywhere, always,” said Matt. “I’m putting it down, drawing my line in the sand. Literally. Right #1: The right to eat.”
Jack didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing, and went about building a fire with the few scraps of wood he could find and a kindling of leaves that he picked from the small bush on the far side of the island.
Once he had built the fire, Matt walked over and sat down in front of it. He warmed his hands.
“Is that another right we have?” Jack asked. “The right warm hands?”
“Don’t be silly, Jack,” was the reply. “How could anyone guarantee such a thing?”
“Yes indeed. Well, I haven’t seen much progress on that fishing spear, so I’ll take a crack at it,” Jack said, and with one of the pieces of hull from The Freedom, a pebble no bigger than a knuckle, and the fire’s heat, within an hour he had fashioned a spear — not a great one, but he figured it would work.
Whether it was luck, skill, or both, Jack’s first chop at the water hit a medium-sized mackerel and wounded it to where Jack could scoop it out of the water and toss it onto the sand. There, it died.
Jack suspended a makeshift rotisserie over the fire. Once cooked, he began to eat the fish.
“Ahem,” Matt said.
“Aren’t you going to share?”
“Honestly, I wasn’t planning on it,” Jack said. “There’s really not much fish on the bone, and you haven’t done anything since we got here. You certainly had no hand in catching this fish.”
“Well, it’s written right here in the sand: Food is a basic necessity. The right to eat.”
Jack grunted, but Matt had a point: It was written down, and anything written down must hold some weight. He acquiesced by tearing a small piece of mackerel away from its skeleton and handing it to Matt.
“See: the right to eat,” Matt said, “it just makes sense.” He chewed the last of his fish loudly, and enjoyed it thoroughly.
After their meal, they were thirsty. Matt said he could tolerate his thirst for a while, so he lay in the sand and looked up at the stars. He began to ponder his and his brother’s lot in the life. He thought about the incredible luck they’d had for almost all of their trip, somehow escaping disaster on a dozen or more occasions. Even while encountering this last, near-fatal disaster, they hadn’t died — both he and Jack were alive and alert, and in a way, the world was their oyster: they could do whatever they wanted, make of this experience whatever they chose. They were completely free. It was invigorating.
Jack interrupted Matt’s reverie: “Hey, I’m gonna get us some water.”
“We can’t drink the water that’s all around us?” Matt asked.
“The salt will only dehydrate us further,” Jack said.
“Oh,” Matt called back.
Jack was ingenious. By dropping a handful of sand onto a taut, dry leaf from as high as he could reach, he punctured 20 or so slits into it. Then, he cupped water from his hand onto the leaf and let it trickle through the leaf and into his other hand below, from which he could scoop it into his mouth. He wasn’t able to drink much water this way, and he wasn’t able to strain all of the salt from it, but it was enough, for now, to quench his thirst and, in the long run, to keep him alive.
Matt wandered over upon seeing Jack drink. “Hey, can I use your … what do you call that … your apparatus? I’m getting thirsty too.”
“Well, you see, every time it gets used, the slits are going to widen. Over time, that will reduce the effectiveness of this … apparatus, as you called it, and I’ll have to make a new one. And I’m not sure when I’ll find another perfect leaf like this.”
“You misunderstood me. I wasn’t really asking whether I can use it. I was just being polite. I’m going to use it. You have to let me.”
“Is that so?” Jack said. “On what authority?”
“The authority that humans have basic rights, and one of them is the right to clean, safe drinking water.”
“Where is that written?” Jack asked, but as the words left his mouth, Matt picked up a stick and began to etch the words in the sand.
“Look here, Matt. I created this apparatus. I had no help from you. I used my own mind, my own skills, my own hands. It belongs to me. You may not take it from me without my permission.”
“If you resist, that’s what I’ll have to do.”
“You and what army?”
“Well, I and all the other people in the world. You see, we all signed a contract. By living together, we agreed that we’d share resources, that we’d help each other out.”
“I … didn’t sign anything like that.”
“Just by having this conversation with me, you did.”
“But you’re not providing any value to me … you’re just taking value from me.”
“I don’t need to provide value. My existence is sufficient. Don’t you read law books?”
“No, I suppose I don’t,” Jack said, and without another word he ceded his leaf apparatus to Matt, who drank from it fully.
They sat for a while, silently. Then Jack spoke: “You keep talking about the right to things. I’m just curious: where is the line?”
“Whatever do you mean?” said Matt, as a strand of saliva flew from his mouth.
“For example, what do you not have a right to? You say you have the right to eat, but you have now eaten. Tomorrow, will it be, ‘The right to eat every day?’ And then will it soon be, “The right to eat every 8 hours?” If I were to catch a huge salmon tomorrow, would you remain satisfied with a few bites of mackerel? Does your ‘right to clean, safe drinking water’ mean that you have the right to as much of it as you want? Or just barely enough to survive?”
“Oh come on now, you’re thinking about it too much,” Matt said. “Let’s just play it by ear, why don’t we?”
“Well you keep talking about the right to this and the right to that. Do I not have any rights? Do I not have the right not to be exploited?”
“Exploitation? Where’d you get a big word like that? I’m doing you a favor! And why would you want freedom from me? Don’t we accomplish more together?”
“Yes, I suppose we do,” Jack said with a sigh.
The sun had set over the small island and both Matt and Jack were exhausted. Matt lay down in the sand, closed his eyes, and turned on his side. Jack still had a spark of energy. He began to shovel with his hands an indentation in the sand, about the size of his body. Then, his hands still cupped and his calluses cracking, he spent an hour and a half gathering algae and kelp. He had to waddle from the ocean back to his bed, careful not to drop any of his pillow, but at last, he had a comfortable bed and pillow and he lay his weary body down to rest.
When the moon had risen directly overhead, Jack was startled. Matt had nudged him in the ribs.
“Move over, buddy,” Matt said.
Exasperated, only half-awake, Jack said, “What … why … what’s going on?”
“I can’t fall asleep. It’s not very comfortable where I am.”
“Don’t you want me to be well rested in the morning? I can’t live up to my full potential if I don’t get a solid night’s sleep. And how can I get a solid night’s sleep without a decent bed?”
“Let me guess: Living up to your full potential is another one of your rights?”
“Of course it is. I wrote in the sand just before I went to sleep.”
“And what if I hadn’t built this nice, comfortable bed for myself. What if I had just done what you did: lie down wherever in the sand?”
“I … I suppose I would have stayed in the sand,” Matt wavered.
“Aha! So then instead of splitting this comfortable bed in two, I could have had an uncomfortable bed to myself! I think I’d have preferred that.”
“Maybe you’d have preferred it. But you’re thinking too much about yourself. Don’t be selfish. What would be the best for us? The two of us. That’s what’s important.”
“If you really believed that, where is your contribution? It seems to me that your ‘right to,’ at every step of the way, has come into conflict with my freedom from being forced into providing you with stuff that I worked hard for.”
Jack stood up, now fully awake. The moon was full and bright.
“You talk about your rights to things,” he went on. “You don’t seem to respect first my freedom from your imposition. And without my freedom from, there is no right to anything. Because unless I am free, I won’t create anything!
To survive — in this world, we must create. We must act; we must act to find water, to find food, to make the world habitable. Perhaps we never experienced that for ourselves, living in San Diego. But now that we find ourselves in the most primitive circumstance, do you not see that we have no right to anything? If it’s true here, it’s true everywhere. Truth does not change depending on where one lives, or how many people surround him.
You look at the world and see abundance. You think I have plenty of what I need, but how can you know what I need? Who are you to tell me how much fish will fill my stomach, how much water will quench my thirst, how much space I need to sleep at night? And if you take that right, mustn’t you then concede my right to tell you when your stomach is full?
No. Until you can feel my hunger for yourself, until you can feel my thirst, until you can feel my body as I lie in bed, you know nothing.
We must strive to live so that each of us is free from other humans’ compulsion. Lord knows, the elements — the derechos and hurricanes, and gravity, and entropy, and our hunger and thirst — give us enough already to contend with, without having our fellow men and women added to the list.
Even if you and 100 people were starving, and I had mountains of mackerel, and had merely stumbled upon it … what so-called right could you reasonably claim to take it from me, that would not interfere first with my freedom? You might think it would result in a ‘better world?’ For whom?
Would I not do more with it than you could? No longer needing to worry about mackerel, I could set my sights on catching … a damn whale, if I so chose! I could build us a boat to get us off this island.
But if you make me spend time and energy to dole out the fish I caught, and to watch over it so as to prevent your taking it, my efforts will be less effective. I’ll have less capacity to work.”
“But what about me?” Matt said. “Don’t you want me to have capacity to work?”
“If I take care of your most basic needs — if you never feel the hunger in your stomach, if you never feel the thirst so bad that you’d consider drinking the sand … why should you ever lift a finger? And consider the precedent you set, if you choose ‘rights,’ (or theft, by another name), over work, just because you want something of mine, or need it, or claim to need it.
Then why would I risk my neck to create anything? Why would I bother risking my life, wasting my precious energy, to create a spear? By stepping forward in space one inch, by lifting my arm above my head, I am burning calories — emptying my stomach, bringing myself, in a way, closer to death. Merely by opening my eyes in the morning, I am risking going blind by the sun’s rays.
I will choose to take that risk in the morning so that I might improve my lot in life. Unlike you, who will sit around pondering it.
Unless I ask something of you, and we agree to a trade of services or goods, then I deny your right to anything. Because anything you’d want the right to had to be created by — had to belong to — someone else.”
Jack walked over to where Matt had written his rights in the sand. He dragged his foot through the words, then back again through them the other way. He brushed the sand from between his toes and returned to his bed. He ignored Matt’s pleas until they faded away against the whoosh of the ocean. And then Jack slept soundly.
If you enjoyed this story — and even if you didn’t — you should check out my book, Ticketless: How Sneaking Into The Super Bowl And Everything Else (Almost) Held My Life Together.