Consider the Goldfish
It has been said, although I have neither the time nor the inclination to verify it, that goldfish do not grow old. That is not to say that they are immortal. They can be caught by playful kittens. They can be eaten by bigger, stronger fish. They can catch diseases and die.
But in the absence of such circumstances, a goldfish simply continues to live. Its body does not break down. Its internal systems do not shut off. Its muscles do not atrophy and waste away.
It simply continues to live. Until it doesn't.
There are people, infinitely smarter than I to be sure, who are even now diligently working on solving the mystery of this problem. For a problem it surely is. How can it be, they ask, that the lowly goldfish can continue to swim about, content and happy among the weeds and snails of its plastic bowls, while we, the Masters, wither and die? How can it be that they live until they don't, while we live while we can?
It is also said, perhaps by the same people who make the previous claim, that a goldfish has a memory of approximately thirty seconds. That they can swim around and around in the same tiny fishbowl for years, constantly exploring new sights and meeting new goldfish. Forever learning new things. Things that they once knew, of course, but have forgotten over the long span of seconds and thus are completely new and wonderous, perhaps for the thousandth time.
How horrible! you may be saying. To live such a life! Forever caught in an endless loop like some broken audio tape repeating the same words over and over again. Is it no wonder that the goldfish has never evolved? Never formed civilizations or cities? Never built skyscrapers or automobiles? How wonderous are we! you exclaim. That we have mobile phones and wine and missiles. We are, truly, the pinnacle of civilization and the goldfish, the poor, lowly goldfish, the nadir.
After all, they cannot remember the minutes of their lives, much less the years like we can. They cannot build on the past.
And yet, the goldfish lives until it doesn't, while we live while we can.
Perhaps someday, those people infinitely smarter than I will develop a serum to make us all more goldfish-like. That would keep us healthy unless we get sick. That would keep us alive unless we are killed. But, somehow, I doubt it. For I believe the key to the goldfish's timeless existence lies in the fact that it, unlike us, does not live in the past.
No therapy to recover from a traumatic childhood. No re-living high school glory days. No dwelling on broken relationships. No working long hours to pay off past purchases. No missing lost loved ones. The goldfish does not dwell on such things. It cannot. It is a creature purely of the here and now.
So really, the question becomes: do you want to live like you do now; chained to the past, destined for what happened before to catch up and claim you, whether through cancer or fatigue or guilt? Or live like the goldfish, forgetting what came before but never evolving, living until chance ends it all?
Bleak choices! you say. Neither is appealing to me! I don't want to simply live until I die. Nor do I simply want to live while I can.
Is there no middle ground? Is there no compromise?
Of course there is. There is always a middle ground, always a compromise, if you're willing to see it.
So here are my suggestions:
Remember what came before, but do not live it.
Learn from the past, but do not dwell on it.
Know those around you, but always look at them with fresh eyes.
See the world outside your fishbowl, but look at it with neverending wonder.
Stay young, in other words, no matter how old you become.
And know that, without a doubt, there is a little bit of the goldfish in every one of us, swimming with us through our lives.
This is a fun little story I wrote while bartending at a zoo. It was one of those business meeting-type events where everyone got a drink before sitting down in the main room to listen to a number of speakers leaving me alone in the lobby waiting for them to finish and drink some more.
As I stood there, twiddling my thumbs and letting my mind wander, I thought of goldfish. I don't know why I thought of goldfish. I just did. Maybe I had read something about them earlier. Maybe I had seen one recently.
But, for whatever reason, I was thinking of goldfish. And how bored I was. And I was at the zoo. And I guess all these elements came together and thus this story was birthed. I is one of those few stories that really hasn't changed since I first scribbled it down on a series of beverage napkins. I've changed a few phrases here and there but it's basically just as I originally thought of it. Straight from my brain to your eyes.
Even all these years later, I read this little piece and smile and nod. This is, I feel, a lesson we all need to be reminded of. From time to time.