We live in a culture where we focus our attention on a very few people, and only those people really “matter”. We gossip about their private lives, we envy their possessions, we sigh at their accomplishments, we strategize over their methodology, desperate to reproduce their success… and yet, they are strangers. They might as well be fish in an aquarium that we stare at. But only a tiny, tiny fraction of the fish in the sea end up in the aquarium.
This life model is unhealthy for us, and it’s unhealthy for the fish.
Some of the fish land their position in the aquarium by chance, some by dint of incredible effort, but once in the aquarium, they cannot escape our gaze, they can never go back to the reef they came from. They are disconnected from that reef. They become alienated, slaves to appearances, and far too often the pressure breaks them in ways hidden or obvious.
But yet we idolize them. We strive to become them, or make our children into them. Or we give up entirely, consoling ourselves with walking the aisles of the aquarium. The “othering” shows itself in the extremes – the woman who goes out in public with baggy, unsuitable clothing and the man who has his five year old in daily football practice are both demonstrating their belief that only the fish in the aquarium really matter.
This model, however fond we are of it, is broken. There are more beautiful fish than can fit in the aquarium. “There Can Be Only One” is a model that kills, not a model that creates life.
It’s a statement of contempt now, but the phrase, “big fish in a small pond” is actually a good one. Most of us have ponds that we can eventually be the biggest fish in – in particular skill sets, in particular communities. And in those ponds, we can be known for ourselves. In those ponds, as we are known, we can be whole – not unidimensional. We can grow into the big fish and cede our position, mentoring the next crew of fry.
We need to be known. We need to interact. We need to be appreciated.
And we need to succeed, to have something we’re good at, that’s part of being known. The struggle of learning your craft, your art, your social gift, your profession is part of maturing. (Note that the aquarium model asks the fish to freeze themselves in time, which, being impossible, is a large part of the cause of their brokenness). But the struggle is properly to improve – not to compete, not to kill off the others.
There can NOT be only one…. because once that one dies, what are you left with?
In healing our communities and in healing our own hearts and lives, we need to give up this model of the aquarium, give up the striving to be the biggest fish in the biggest pond… and start giving ourselves instead. It will mean that fame takes a backseat in our hearts. It will mean looking at, admiring the other fish in our own reefs. Knowing them. Appreciating them. Enjoying the variety, the skills, the beauty, that surround us.
Bring back the community theatre – and attend. Bring back the church bake off and the best cherry pie in town. Bring back asking your elders for wisdom, and knowing at whose feet to sit. We will all benefit, far more than we do by our walk through the aquarium alone in the dark.