Cell Fish

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” ~ Henry David Thoreau

ImageSeptember, 1973: I was at the carnival with my family. We spent a long evening walking around, riding the rides, watching the shows … listening to the sideshow barkers sell their script. It was quite a learning experience for a young. impressionable Hannibal.

One of the games on the midway had goldfish as prizes. There was a large table, with a shelf curving up from it and on the shelf were dozens (seemed like hundreds to my young eyes) of little bowls with a single goldfish swimming in each. With the colored flashing lights of the midway surrounding, the entire tableau sparkled like bright gems spilling out of a treasure chest. This image stayed with me long after the calliope music faded and the sawdust was swept away.

I asked my Mom if, at the end of the day, the fish were all put back together in one tank so they could talk to each other. Mom said, “I don’t know, but I don’t think fish get lonely, anyway. They don’t know much more than their little apartments, and they are perfectly fine there.”

She called them ‘Apartments’, but to me they looked more like cells – and the occupants didn’t even know they were prisoners. They swam obliviously in their neon-lit water, never reacting to the chaotic world going on around their little glass cages.

And aren’t we just the same? The most obvious things are the hardest to see and talk about. We color the world through the prism of our own selfish point of view.

The Fish Doesn’t Know It’s Swimming

If you try to explain to the fish that it lives in water, it would say “What is water?” It is surrounded by water, so it’s impossible to experience. They can’t see it until they are outside of it. This is how culture works on us. This is how we are so very easily manipulated. We know only our little cells, and we rarely (if ever) contemplate what is outside of them. We are prisoners of our own view.

I’m not going to offer moral advice, because I don’t have any kind of authority to do so. Besides, this isn’t about morality or religion. All I want to do is to become a little more conscious of the reality around me. The beauty of life. I want to know I’m swimming and be grateful for the water.

I long to truly stand in your shoes and understand how you see the world. Maybe then we can both be free and at peace.



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