Whether fluffy, frozen, falling, flowing, or just filling up lakes and channels, the amount of water here in the Puget Sound Northwest is impressive to a Coloradan like myself. And the first two weeks of February deepened that sense as I was literally living on water, floating on cedar logs supporting a platform on which a house sits (No, you don’t feel the house rocking).
So with Lake Union underfoot and visible all around, I found myself imagining life below the surface, being reminded of an old story where an elder fish passes by two young fish and says, “Hey, how’s the water today?” A few moments later one of the young fish turns to the other and says, “What the heck is water?”
Many have heard this or another version of the metaphor.
The point is simple and profound: there are realities that are so deeply implicit and pervasive as to be beyond our conscious awareness. Now I’m grateful for the kind of unconsciousness that keeps us breathing and our body’s organs functioning when we are not conscious of it, but this kind of unconsciousness (un-awareness) limits us since that means we are not really in touch with what is really, fully real and true. We remain limited in love for God, neighbor, and self if we can only say ‘What the heck is water?’ Remaining unconscious to the invisible watery matrix means we cannot change the matrix nor compensate for its substance and its currents.
We can be like that young unaware fish in several ways. It happens to us inside of our own psyche/souls when we are not self-aware of a deep pattern or hidden functioning truth of our inner life. It happens in our family systems when hidden dynamics and invisible stories drive family members to interact and behave a certain way. For example, on a men’s rite of passage retreat a couple years ago, I had a realization that deep inside of me was a painful hidden operating truth (from psyche and family system) that had been driving many of my life’s relationship choices: You’ll only love me if I do what you want. Eureka! The water! Becoming aware enough to articulate this hidden truth allowed me to know the inner sea in which I was swimming, but not quite fully aware of. That realization has helped me to move differently, to love myself and others differently, even to allow God’s Love to come to me differently outside those terms.
Not seeing the water happens in the cultural milieu as well with all sorts of systemic assumptions and biases that are hidden to most. For example, anytime the system implicitly assumes a given norm or ideal, we together are fish not aware of water. Sometimes we do it in relation to the ideal human (usually male, white, straight, able-bodied). Remember the old band-aids that were labeled ‘flesh-colored,” but were really an imitation of northern European descent human skin color (certain white people)? We unconsciously normalized and idealized one kind of human skin.
It happens when someone mentions to me an unknown physician or professor or politician and I realize that, without consciously choosing it, I feel a small surprise, a correction to my internal default image, when I find out that this person is not white or male. Even though I consider myself a progressive, justice-seeking person supporting equality and open to opportunities for all in principle, I discover an old habit, an old way implicitly programmed into my imagination. That’s when I get it. I am a fish in the invisible waters of assumption, the implicit norms and ideals and biases that lead to unconscious racism or sexism or whatever-ism.
When Jesus said that ‘the Truth shall set you free,’ I believe that this coming to awareness is part of realizing the Truth that leads to freedom.
When we grow our awareness of our hidden depths of psyche and culture, that new consciousness of what was invisible and implicit opens a way to a change of mind and direction (metanoia or repentance). Our communal psycho-spiritual calling as a Body of Christ and as followers of the Way is to grow from being the young fish saying, “What the heck is water?” to being the elder fish aware enough to ask, “How is the water?”
May our life of worship, of study, of connecting, and of service always lead us to becoming elder fish who are aware of the waters of life in which we swim.