“The happiness we seek cannot be found by holding onto things or trying to hold on to them. Hmm.” ~Pema Codron
When I was a kid, my parents would take me and my brother fishing with family friends during the summer. As I sat in the back seat of my car driving through the countryside, I had no worries about the future. It was an innocent time.
On this special trip in my memory, I got to try fishing for the first time. I thought it was creepy to put a worm on a hook, but I was excited for an adult to do it. Little did I know that I would learn some important life lessons on this trip.
When we got to the fishing spot, my father gave me a small fishing rod suitable for small children. I was so excited. While the adults were busy, I grabbed my fishing rod and ran in search of a place to catch fish.
After a while, I dropped the fishing line through the eye-shaped hole between the two planks of the dock. It was a perfect little hole for small children to catch small fish. I crouched next to the hole and peered into the dark water below the dock.
Nothing happened for a while. Suddenly I woke up feeling a tug on the string. she was holding onto something I was overjoyed! When I pulled the fishing line, I saw that a small fish was being caught. Unfortunately the dock hole was even smaller. Still, I didn’t want to lose my prey.
I asked adults for help. One after another, the adults around them gathered to help get this little fish out of the slightly smaller hole. I asked the adults to do their best while struggling. When everyone tried to pull the fish out of the hole, the fish writhed with all its might.
After some time we managed to push the fish into the hole. But we all looked down at the fish at our feet. The outer flesh of the fish is full of bruises and is now barely alive. Sadness and regret overwhelmed me. I realized that I did something terribly wrong.
“No more, I can’t keep it,” said one of the adults firmly. We put the fish back into the water in a severed state. The crowd dispersed as if nothing had happened. I was left alone and stunned by the experience. I didn’t feel like fishing anymore.
The memory of the fish will remain in me even after many years. What pain did I cause to the fish and everyone else that day? I thought the fish was mine and refused to let go of what I thought was mine. Of course, as a child, I didn’t know much more. Yet this guilt remains.
What do we own in life? If we acquire something, either by effort or by accident, is it really property? Is it what we protect? How can we know when it is appropriate to relax our single-mindedness?
That day the fish taught me about letting go. When I fall into the trap of attachment, the other person walks away, leaving only me, my concerns, and my only object of desire. Then I shrink into a smaller version of myself and can’t see the big picture.
Fish also taught me a lesson in harmlessness. No matter how much I believe my actions are justified, if they are causing harm to others, it is wise to stop. What do I really care about? What other ways do I get what I really need?
When I think about it more deeply, I realize that when I was younger, I wanted that scenario to give me a sense of accomplishment. And if you can maintain that sense of accomplishment, you will gain self-esteem. Having self-esteem would make me experience a kind of love for myself. It wasn’t about fish at all.
Since that event, the fish have visited me again in many ways. Sometimes it appears as a person, sometimes as a project or job, sometimes as an identity.
Recently, I nearly lost a hard-earned business opportunity. Although I experienced deep disappointment, I managed to take a step back and accept the potential loss. I told myself that I was good enough, that my work did not define me, even though it gave me a sense of meaning and purpose.
In life, success and failure are two sides of the same coin. To know success, you must also know failure. To know failure, you must also know success.
I now know that failure and success do not hurt my self-esteem. My self-esteem comes from knowing that I inevitably grow from both my successes and my failures. The practice of letting go keeps me moving toward growth and perfection.
Another lesson learned from this fishing trip. It’s a lesson in forgiveness. In writing this reflection, I forgive myself for the harm I have done in the past through ignorance. I have chosen to live a more conscious life, free of the guilt I have been carrying.
It’s incredible how a small fish can teach such a big lesson to little children. It’s only when you’re an adult that you can fully integrate it.