“The happiness we seek cannot be found through grasping, trying to hold on to things. It cannot be found through getting serious and uptight about wanting things to go in the direction we think will bring happiness.” ~Pema Chodron
When I was a kid, my parents used to take me and my younger brother fishing during the summer with some family friends. Sitting in the backseat of the car as we drove through the countryside, I had no worries about the future. It was a time of innocence.
On this particular trip, which stands out in my memory, I would try fishing for the first time. I thought attaching a worm onto a hook was gross, but I was excited to do something adults do. Little did I know that I would learn a few important life lessons on this trip.
When we arrived at the fishing dock, my dad offered me a small fishing rod, one that was suitable for a small child. I was thrilled. While the adults busied themselves, I ran off with my fishing rod, looking for a spot to catch a fish.
Moments later, I had my fishing line down an eye-shaped hole that opened up between two boards on the dock. It was perfect: a small hole for a small child to catch a small fish. I crouched beside the hole and peered into the shadowy water beneath the dock.
Nothing happened for some time. Suddenly, I felt a tug on the line, jolting me alert. I had caught something. I was ecstatic! I drew my line up and saw that I had caught a small fish. Unfortunately, the hole in the dock was even smaller. Yet, I didn’t want to lose my catch.
I called out to the adults for help. One by one, the grownups around me gathered to help get this small fish through a slightly smaller hole. I implored the adults to try harder as they struggled. As we all tried to pull the fish through the hole, it thrashed in defiance with all its might.
After some time, we managed to force the fish through the hole. However, we all looked down on the fish before our feet, its outer flesh scarred, now barely alive. A sense of sadness and regret came over me. I realized that I had done something terribly wrong.
“It’s no good now. We can’t keep it,” said one of the adults flatly. We threw the fish back into the water in its mutilated state. The crowd dispersed as if nothing of significance had happened. I was left alone, dazed by the experience. I didn’t feel like fishing anymore.
The memory of the fish has stayed with me through the years. What torment had I put the fish and everyone else through that day? I thought the fish belonged to me, and I refused to let go of what I thought was mine. Of course, I was only a child—I didn’t know any better. Yet, I’m left with this sense of guilt.
What do we own in life? If we acquire something, whether through our efforts or by chance, do we truly own it? Is it ours to keep? How do we know when it is appropriate to relax our single-mindedness?
That day, the fish taught me about letting go. When I’m caught in the trap of attachment, other people fall away, and all that remains is me, my concerns, and my one object of desire. When that happens, I contract into a smaller version of myself that fails to see the larger picture.
The fish also taught me the lesson of harmlessness. If my actions, no matter how justified I believe they are to be, are causing others harm, then it would be wise to stop. What do I truly value, and what are other ways that I can get what I really need?
Reflecting more deeply, I see that my younger self wanted to hold onto a sense of achievement in that scenario. And if I could keep that sense of achievement, I would gain self-esteem. By having self-esteem, I would experience a kind of love for myself. It wasn’t really about the fish at all.
Since that event, the fish has revisited me in many different forms. Sometimes it appears as a person, sometimes a project or job, and other times an identity.
Recently, I felt close to losing a business opportunity I had worked hard to secure. While I experienced deep disappointment, I managed to step back and make peace with the potential loss. I reminded myself that I was enough, and that my work doesn’t define who I am—even if what I do provides me with a sense of meaning and purpose.
In life, success and failure are two sides of the same coin. In order to know success, we must also know failure. In order to know failure, we must also know success.
I now know that whether I fail or succeed, I can still find my self-esteem intact. My self-esteem stems partly from knowing I will inevitably grow from both success and failure. Practicing letting go allows me to continue moving toward growth and wholeness.
There is one more lesson that I learned from this fishing trip, and that’s the lesson of forgiveness. In writing this reflection, I forgive myself for the harm I’ve done in the past out of ignorance. I free myself of the guilt I’ve been carrying and choose to lead a more conscious life.
It’s incredible how a tiny fish can give a small child such big lessons; ones that he can only fully integrate as an adult.