This summer, photographer Tim Samuel was freediving off the coast of Australia when he happened by a curious sight: a fish stuck inside a jellyfish. Who knows how the poor guy got into this predicament–a lost bet?, a quick dart for cover?– but there he was, encased in the transparent innards of another being, struggling to set his course.
Much like the Pushmi-Pullyu of Dr. Doolittle lore, the fish tried valiantly to steer in one direction, but the jellyfish had other
ideas; that is, as much of an idea as a non-sentient creature can have. So the two ended up in a frustrating dance, the fish leading in one direction for a few hopeful moments, then twirling in circles led by the motions of the jellyfish.
I stared at the pictures of that little fish for a long time, alternating between fascination and pity. This was no symbiotic clown fish-anemone bargain.
It was a Big Oops.
How long had they been existing like this? Had he surrendered to his plight as the new normal or did he hold out hope of escape? Do fish hope?
Sometimes we cruise along merrily, caught up in the current’s rush and not paying much attention, and something takes over, recharting our course. Maybe it’s a surprise pregnancy, a sudden loss, or a change in job status.
Oh, hello, Jellyfish! Didn’t see that coming. We have to readjust, struggling to steer with limited visibility through the gauzy haze that’s fallen. Eventually, we part ways with the jelly because it was a temporary retreat. Like Jonah’s whale, it spits us out once we’ve sat long enough to learn the lessons within.
Then there’s the more worrisome situation. The light shines down through the waters one day just enough to light up our prison. We wake up out of our fog and see the walls of our own making. All this time we thought this was living. Realization settles in and a lump grows in our throats: Regret.
Imagine how the heart sinks. We never took that class, got the degree, popped the cork on a bottle of chilled champagne. One day we look around and our passports remain unstamped, our taste buds untitillated. As we drifted aimlessly inside the jellyfish, the current made the easy choices for us, leaving the hard, messy, rewarding roads open for those who swam unswaddled by limits. There, the lowest common denominator makes the rules, and too much of anything (joy, faith, love, discovery) is frowned upon.
Sometimes we’re lucky enough to get shaken awake and make a run for it. Unlike the unfortunate fish, we can escape from the trodden miles of waste that lie behind (wasted time, chances, calories) towards a different path. Outside the jellyfish there’s an abundant waste, one that comes from an overflow. Outside the jelly, we are in all the pictures because makeup and good hair doesn’t matter. There, we ride the rides, eat the chocolate, and take scary steps of faith because the alternative is a lack of oxygen and color that shrinks us.
Outside the jellyfish an alabaster jar pours a wealth of grace at our feet. It’s okay–encouraged–to pray big, sing loudly, jump into a pile of leaves like when you were young, and be so touched by beauty or kindness that it brings tears. It’s no big deal to learn to tango, start that novel, or dress up like a T-Rex because it taps into your happy. You don’t have to go 3.7 seconds on a bull named Fu Manchu, but at least you have the option.
We weren’t born to just pay bills and die. Somewhere between wanting to be a fireman when we grew up and sitting on the porch in our 80’s with a blanket across our knees there’s big wet sloppy kisses and zip lines and ice skating. There are broken hearts, outrageous risks, and the cold side of the pillow. There’s stuff in us waiting to be turned inside out and shown to the world because that’s what living out loud and living on purpose look like.
Stretch out your arms big and wide. Draw a breath from the well that lies low in the depths. Relax your shoulders and neck from where you’ve been balancing all the shoulds and oughts and expecteds and think about that fish. All that open ocean and he’s stuck tight turning in circles. Regret like that is heartbreaking. Let’s put on some Jailhouse Rock and blow this joint.