“The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” – Carl Rogers, founder of person-centered psychotherapy
You might be surprised to learn you can have a conversation with a fish that is swimming in a fish tank. I know because I once had one.
During the ages 16 and 17, I walked past a fish tank hundreds of times as I came and went to clinic at the National Institutes of Health, where I received treatment for my bone cancer. The tank stood against a wall in the waiting room, in between the elevators and the bathroom. For a cancer patient, no room is more important than the bathroom–besides the infusion room which was down another hall.
One fish in the tank was bigger and, I thought, uglier than the others…. which led me to follow my dad’s logic that the bigger and uglier a creature, the older it is. This one must’ve been the Donald Trump of fish.
“You lucky fish,” I told this big ugly fish one afternoon on my way to the bathroom after I finished getting my chemo drips for the day. “You can just pee right there in your tank, but I must get up to pee in a specific porcelain bowl while groggy, on crutches, nauseous and exhausted.”
The fish didn’t respond. I didn’t think he would, though he did follow me with his eyes by pivoting in his pee water.
The next morning before I got my chemo, I sat in the red cushioned chair that faced the tank and watched this big ugly fish in the waiting room. He recognized me, I’m sure of it, because he started spinning and doing flips. I guess not all big old ugly things lose their charm.
I peered around to see if anyone was nearby, but it was just me and the big ugly fish. I looked right at him. His wrinkly mouth puckered, and I thought maybe this time he might actually respond. “What are you thinking?” I said to him.
“Do you, too, laugh at the guy who gets so nervous getting his blood drawn that he sweats?”
Nothing. I was getting mad and thinking this fish was mocking me.
“What’s it like to live in your own filth and pee?”
Yes, even cancer patients can be mean.
“Bah! You’re just a big ugly fish living in water.”
With the help of my crutches, I stood up tall on my strong right leg, tucked the crutches under my armpits and started towards the infusion room. That’s when I faintly heard from the direction of the fish, “I don’t know I’m in water. What’s water?”
Shocked, I turned towards the fish tank so quickly that I almost toppled over. I returned to the chair and my attention to the talking fish. “What do you mean? You’re clearly swimming and living in water and you can’t survive without it.”
“Listen to me, I don’t have much time left as I am old.”
I knew it!
“This is my environment, it is all I know, and I can’t change it. Here, I simply am.”
I gasped. The way he said it reminded me of the meaning of that word I’m not supposed to say. “Are you . . . God?” I asked.
The big old ugly fish did a somersault, I think just to keep me waiting for his response. He was such a ham. When he settled again, he looked back at me. “No, I’m not God. I’m just an old fish living in this great big world and looking at you in your strange, even bigger world. Our worlds are different, and we each see each other’s world differently because we’re seeing it through the lens of our own world.
“You say I’m in water. I say I just am. I say you’re in a happy, sociable room where kids get to play with toys like those sticks you’re holding and the pole you push with hanging bags of colorful liquid and stamped with the biohazard symbol.
“Now, tell me about your world. I want to learn.”
And that was the one time in my life I talked to a fish. I told him all about our cancers and how we poisoned them to hopefully make them go away, and how once we were done poisoning them, we went off into a much bigger world he would never see.
Since then, a new National Institutes of Health Clinical Center replaced that one, and I haven’t been a patient at NIH in over 14 years. That fish tank is long gone. So is that big old ugly fish, though I sometimes think about him. The older I have gotten, the more I have thought that fish was trying to teach me a lesson about acceptance. No matter that fish’s faults, like his living space being filled with urea, he wholeheartedly accepted that which he could not change. And for that which he could change—in other words, the things he didn’t have to accept—he kept an open mind about, challenged himself to learn from, put in the work to improve on, and ultimately grew from until he could reach a point of acceptance. Self-acceptance is a path to happiness.
Now, some 16 years later, I want a daily reminder of that unique world I briefly inhabited, that world filled with toys like wooden crutches and IV poles. I want to always remember that big old ugly fish. And, I want to remind myself that I’m ready to radically accept those pieces of myself which I cannot change, and choose the challenging path through life to positively change those pieces of myself I can change.
So—and Mom, this is when you should sit down and brace yourself—five years after getting my first tattoo and two years after getting my second, I got another.