Soft sobs emanated from my daughter’s room this rainy morning. Her beloved Beta lay on his side at the bottom of the tank. We knew he was old. We knew he wasn’t well. So we were “prepared” like our culture says we should be…like expecting a loss would somehow make it better.
As I held my daughter in my arms, as she cried, I thought of what I could say to make it better. Again, it feels like that idea is more a cultural norm. For what could anyone say that could ease the pain of loss. A quiet presence is needed…coupled with a willingness to do something hard: enter into the silence of sadness, even if it is just for a few minutes. Just be there. Let it penetrate the heart, like a storm surge over the emotional boundary levy of the heart… the one that most of us have constructed against the pain and horror of this world. But that is not what usually happens. We raise a hand to suffering and say, “You shall not pass.”
But what does keeping out this metaphorical sea actually accomplish?
For me it has, ironically, kept me from life. I was raised to avoid the sad and the tragic, even though, right within my immediate family, there was heart-breaking dysfunction. I am not sure why this seems to be the way of things. Maybe when there is so much incomprehensible woe, you just disassociate from it. However, regardless of the emotional content of my childhood, the result was that I interfaced with life quite superficially. Life on the surface is not much of a trip. The deep is where the wonder is.
Just think about it, if a person’s guiding, albeit unconscious, philosophy is to avoid pain at all costs, look what is lost. Relationships with others are most definitely on the block. For there is no other place fraught with more suffering than the commitment to love someone in all their imperfection. Also what about risk? It is the essential element in having a dream. What then? Can great things be accomplished if risk is reduced to a background buzz? Yes, it is true that there is safety, but what kind of life is safeguarded? Is it something transcendently beautiful, like the soulful strains of a cello, or the orange-pink of a morning sky? No, it is a life of protected routine that never allows for the sweetness innate in every soul to emerge. Kahlil Gibran said that our capacity to feel joy in life was directly proportional to our capacity to feel pain. I wonder in our society, if some of the great tragic sweeps of serious psychological hurt might be displaced, somehow, if we as a culture, made some sacred space for sadness, instead of always trying for “happy” all the time?
Kahlil also says:
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.
So back to the dead fish. As I held my sweet girl, I thought of this to say: “He was probably the most loved fish in the world. Most people don’t even care about a little fish, but you did, and he knew it.” When my daughter would place her finger on his tank, he would come. There was a connection between two living beings. Life happened. It wasn’t safe, for as Antoine de Saint Exupery says in The Little Prince, you risk tears when you love. But it was life because there was depth and meaning present…”mattering” was there. It was one of those Gibran daily miracles. That fragility of loving something, knowing consciously that it is indeed ephemeral, that it will die, or leave, and then defiantly loving it all the same, is life. And it can hurt. But it is also sweet…it is poetry…it is the heavens touching our plasticy, costumed existence with such luminous beauty.
Who would have thought there was so much in the little life of a fish.