January 9 – Life in the Tank – Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

“Love, and do what thou wilt.” Saint Augustine 

It was a curious thing. Robert had filled the bathtub and put the fish in the tub, so he could clean their tank. After he’d  scrubbed the film from the small walls of their make believe deep, he went to retrieve them.

He was astonished to find that, though they had the entire tub to swim in, they were huddled in a small area the size of their tank. There was nothing containing them, nothing holding them back. Why wouldn’t they dart about freely? What had life in the tank done to their natural ability to swim?

This quiet yet stark moment stayed with us both for a long time. We couldn’t help but see those little fish going nowhere but into themselves. We now had a life in the tank lens on the world and wondered daily, in what ways are we like them? In what ways do we go nowhere but into ourselves? In what ways do we shrink our world so as not to feel the press of our self imposed captivity?

Life in the tank made me think of how we are raised at home and in school. It made me think of being told that certain jobs are not acceptable and that certain jobs are out of reach, of being schooled to live a certain way, of being trained to think that only practical things are possible, of being warned over and over that life outside the tank of our values is risky and dangerous.

I began to see just how much we were taught as children to fear life outside the tank. As a father, Robert began to question if he was preparing his children for life in the tank or life in the uncontainable world.

It makes me wonder now, in middle age, if being spontaneous and kind and curious are all parts of our natural ability to swim.  Each time I hesitate to do the unplanned or unexpected, or hesitate to reach and help another, or hesitate to inquire into something  I know nothing about; each time I ignore the impulse to run in the rain or to call you up just to say I love you – I wonder, am I turning on myself, swimming safety in the middle of the tub?

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