Have you ever observed a goldfish in a bowl? It swims in circles, it examines (and sometimes nibbles at) the colored pebbles on the tank floor, swims in and out of its little plastic cave, eats food flakes off the surface and generally doesn’t seem to mind it’s surroundings, as long as someone keeps the bowl clean and feeds it. To me, it looks like an inane life—a fish can only be content with this small world because its brain is tiny and houses no ambition. And yet…
I am married to my high school sweetheart (together 27 years now), creative problem-solver, father of our five children, captain of our boat, database engineer/consultant…and introvert. His “office” for the last twelve years has been a 3’ x 4’ x 6’ shared pace in the fourth cabin on our boat—office by day, kid’s bunk by night. It’s not air-conditioned unless the generator is running or we’re living at a dock, but he seldom complains. He rarely leaves the boat, since the work he does for fun is in the same place as the work he does for a living; when he gets up from his computer, he might pick up a sander and go to work on our decks, or a screwdriver to rebuild a broken pump, or do something with one of the kids. He meets many of the requirements for happiness in a solitary life and fitness for living aboard a boat. He’s no brainless goldfish, but he is content with a self-contained life.
Of course, since opposites attract, I possess other, complementary traits, like an outgoing nature, a love of language, hospitality, and creativity (especially when shared). These traits are also helpful when living on a boat—when we get to a new place, I am the one who meets new people, figures out where to get things, who acts as translator if necessary, who invites friends for dinner and arranges get-togethers and field trips with other sailors. I am the ambassador. When I’m forced to curtail these social activities—due to long passages, isolated locations, bad weather, or a global pandemic that requires social distancing, this outgoing nature is quickly frustrated. I begin to view the “goldfish bowl” as a small, uncomfortable, limiting existence.
Occasionally, a pet goldfish will try to leave its watery habitat. It usually happens when the temperature is off or the tank is unclean, or if the fish is stressed or ill. It might jump out of its bowl, hoping to discover better conditions, only to find itself flopping around on the dresser, gasping for water. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, it may discover too late that “there’s no place like home.”
Of course, I am not a fish, nor am I ready to “jump” because my social life has shrunk to a sunset happy hour with Jay on the back steps. Put in perspective with the real suffering of illness, poverty, and injustice, our mere discomfort does not merit complaint. If anything, now is the time to be grateful; we are healthy and safe, and the slower pace has been good for our family and our homeschool. But in addition to bemoaning the state of the world, I have also possessed the attitude of a spoiled brat; I confess to feeling discontented and ungrateful, to pining after something I can’t have right now, and to complaining about disrupted plans and lost opportunities. Without the normal rhythms of work and play, social activities and gatherings—some of which are, in truth, distractions—I am doing some soul-searching, and realizing that saying “God’s grace is sufficient” and living it are two different things (from Paul’s 2nd letter to the Corinthians 12:9). That verse continues: “His strength is made perfect in weakness,” but who wants to admit weakness? When the going gets tough, the tough are not supposed to act like toddlers, but sometimes they do. The verse finishes with, “therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
My main weaknesses consist of self-centeredness and a choice to focus on the wrong things. I have discovered in the last three months that the difference between a “good day” and a “bad day” is where I keep my focus. If I am using a screen as a substitute for time with a real person, if I am spending a lot of time looking at bad news, if I am giving way to feelings of loss, frustration, or anxiety, then I am heading for trouble and probably tears. Instead, if I wake up early and have my morning quiet time, if I am praying for those who are suffering, if I am counting my blessings, if I am truly present and willing to accept the gift of this day (whatever it holds), if I am investing in real relationships, then I am content. A simple change of focus makes all the difference.
Here are the things for which I am especially grateful today:
- For my marriage of almost 23 years, for the daily sunset “date” Jay and I have set aside in order to give each other undivided attention, for Jay’s calm, steady, unflagging nature, and for his tireless patience with my ups and downs, and for his honesty and hard work.
- For my children, who offer pearls of wisdom every time I stop to listen.
- For my extended family, whether by blood, marriage, or “adoption,” who are encouraging and supportive, who will stop what they’re doing to talk or pray, who demonstrate what love is.
- For the homeschool community and the sailing community—despite the curtailing of activities, there I find love and connection.
- For the privilege of living and traveling on Take Two, for all we have learned while living aboard, and for friends from around the world.
- For the simple things—a safe place to sleep, food to eat, fresh air and sunshine, health, time with family, the gift of life itself.
Paul, in his letter to the church in Philippi, Greece, offers this thought on contentment: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all things through him (Christ) who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:11-13).
Maybe, like Jay, you are a happy goldfish. Or, like me, you might be feeling sometimes like a fish out of water, gasping for community, struggling in relationships, and experiencing a mixture of sadness, fear, and anger about what’s going on in the world. Your situation might be worse, or it might be better. Whatever the case, we can all use our present circumstances to delve deeper into what it means to have faith, to be thankful no matter what, and to find strength in weakness.