Many of you may have heard this story before. I’ve heard it told by James Dobson, by Richard Rohr, and a few others. But it merits repeating:
Some years ago an American research centre conducted an experiment with a wall-eyed pike. They placed this fish in an aquarium and fed it regularly, Then, after a time, they inserted an invisible glass plate into the aquarium, sealing off part of it. They began to put the wall-eyed’s food on the other side of that plate. Every time the fish tried to take some food, it would bump against the glass plate and come away empty.
For quite a while the fish kept trying, swimming up, attempting to take food, bumping its mouth, and coming away empty. Eventually, the wall-eye stopped trying. It would swim towards the food but, just before striking the glass plate, it would turn and swim slowly away.
At this point, the researchers removed the glass plate. But the damage had been done. The fish never ate again. No amount of hunger could drive it to attempt again to eat. It would swim up to the food and, at the last second, turn away, not knowing that the glass plate was now gone and that it could eat freely. The wall-eye eventually died of malnutrition – surrounded by food.
This is not meant as a sentimental little anecdote designed to make us feel sorry for a poor fish which had the misfortune of falling victim to the cruelties of human experiment, though, hearing it, does give the heart a sad wrench.
The sorrow it triggers goes much deeper than mere sentiment. This story goes to that part of the heart where we would want to cry and cry and never stop crying – but, for the most part, cannot. It goes to that part of the heart where we are most damaged – and most hardened. That’s why it begs for tears even as some of the feelings it evokes brings our wounded pride to the surface and hardens us against all softness. Somebody once suggested that the reason why men are afraid to cry is that if they ever gave in to what’s deep inside of them and allowed the tears to flow there would be no end of it. The tears would never stop. I believe that this is true of men – and of women as well.
Hearing this story helps us understand why.
All of us know exactly what happened to this wall-eyed pike and why it eventually stopped eating – and most of us are in danger of dying from a similar malnutrition.
What an incredible parable this is! What an insight it can give us into why we are starving when love is all around us! Why this deep well of inchoate sadness within us? Why such affective timidity? Why our chronic distrust? Why are we so limp in our capacity to simply let ourselves be loved? Why are we so debilitated and starving for affection, even as we, and everyone around us, are bursting with desire?
We are dying of from lack of love in a world where most everyone wants to love and we are unable to pour out love upon people who are starving for it. Strange. There are no glass plates between ourselves and others and yet we cannot really touch. Food is all around and we are dying from malnutrition. Something is deeply wrong and we are, all of us, deeply sad.
This story, to my mind, says something very important about what is wrong, why we are so deeply sad, and what’s to be done about. And its value is that it speaks to the soul, gently, directly, deeply. It is something not so much to be explained as it is to be felt. Its language and image honours the soul and gives it both the space and the respect that it needs to do its proper grieving. Hence stories like this are badly needed. Today we have too little language and too few images that give our souls the permission they need to feel certain things.
Instead we have a virtual library of analytical literature which attempts to explain to us why we are, in its terminology, dysfunctional, chronically depressed, and unfree to simply enter the flow of love and delight in it. Its a valuable literature, good in itself, but it is a clinical one. It examines us the way a doctor would – naked on the diagnostic table, under the merciless glare of fluorescent lights, every mole and scab exposed, and no dignity possible as various instruments do their probing.
Weeping with the wall-eyed pike takes away the glare of the fluorescent lights and gives our tears dignity.