Hello Dear Friends!
When I thought about what I would write about this morning, the first thing that came to my mind was Che. He’s my betta fish whom I’ve had for a year and a half. Before him, I had a betta, Wanda, who lived for five years. I wouldn’t really call myself a “betta enthusiast” (and yes, those people exist) because I don’t post in online forums, read betta blogs, and other things like that. But I do love my fishes to a degree that some people, my husband included, would call a bit excessive.
Last week, Che started acting very strangely. Normally an active fish, he took up residence at the bottom of his bowl, breathing heavily. He stopped showing interest in food. At first, I thought it was the cold snap we were experiencing. After all, I was sitting in the dining room in a sweatshirt, two pairs or socks, and a wool cap; why wouldn’t my fish also be cold? I consulted Dr. Google (because strangely enough, my vet doesn’t see or advise on fish) and discovered that cold is very bad for bettas, and I ought to be horsewhipped for having him in a small unheated bowl. Horrified (and totally disregarding I’d kept a very happy betta for five years in said small, unheated bowl) I dashed to the pet store, where I bought a 2.5 gallon tank, complete with some plants, a filter, and of course, the all-important heater. Although I followed the instructions to a tee, painstakingly setting up the heater and bowl and waiting the 24-hour “cycle” period before introducing Che into his new home, he did not bounce back as I had hoped. Some online sources claim that male bettas don’t eat for a week after being introduced to a new habitat, and I’m praying it’s that. But he’s still lethargic, only periodically swimming around energetically before flopping back on the tank floor. He doesn’t seem to be getting worse–he might be responding to the daily water changes, aquarium salt treatment, pH testing, and all-purpose medication treatment I’ve been using daily. Some guy online said his fish went through the exact same set of symptoms but with the aggressive treatment, in 10 days he was totally bounced back. What I hope more than anything is that he’s not needlessly suffering. I know he’s a fish and is not really aware of what’s going on, but it’s hard not to anthropomorphize him as he’s propped up against the side of the tank, visibly gasping for breath.
Yesterday, a cultural icon died after a long battle with cancer. I myself am not a huge David Bowie fan (don’t dislike him, just never had enough room in my Beatles mania to add him to my music rotation) but many of my friends are, and I watched the massive outpouring of public grief unfold online. Many people expressed chagrin that they were acting this way and asked for sympathy, as if they knew they would have a tough time getting it. I spoke to someone about how many people seemed bowled over by this, and this person responded with something along the lines of how they didn’t know him personally and celebrity deaths are vastly overblown in our society. Having witnessed recently the reaction to Steve Jobs, Robin Williams, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s deaths, I couldn’t really disagree with her. But her comment did get me thinking about grief.
The thing is about grief–it’s irrational. It doesn’t strike people at proper times or last for appropriate lengths. It’s big and ungovernable and messy. It doesn’t make logical sense that I have spent nearly a week consumed with worry, lying awake at night earnestly praying to God to save my $10 fish and feel almost nothing about the death of a man who did so many good things for so many good people. Last year, I was very upset about the Paris attacks, because many people died but also because Paris is a city that I love very much and have made many fabulous memories while there. I was not as affected by the Lebanon attacks which occurred near the same time–not because I cared less that those people died, but because I have no connection to that city. Now, why THAT is true is a big tangled web of Western bias and privilege and what the media covers and so on, which is fodder for another blog post, but the point is that Paris, for me, was personal. Lebanon was not.
I feel like the internet has caused a rise of “grief policing”: where people say “why are you upset about X when Y and Z are happening too?” I myself was sorely tempted to join in during the Cecil the Lion issue. I was flummoxed when people were devastated over the death of this lion and calling for his killer to be shot. Who cares about one stupid lion, I thought. People are dying every day from a lack of fresh water and nobody cares about that. I privately ridiculed the overblown statements of grief and felt a little superior that at least my head and heart were in the right place.
I’ve decided that kind of thinking is wrong, wrong, wrong. Because if somebody were to laugh at me right now because I’m more upset about my pet fish than a human life, I would want to smack them. You don’t know what’s in my heart! I would say.
Even talking about one’s heart is illogical, if you think about it. We often speak of the conflict between one’s head and one’s heart, yet the truth is the “heart” is not a feelings-capable organ at all. It’s just a muscle that pumps blood–vital, yes, but sentient, no. That would be like saying my liver tells me, or my pancreas, or my small intestine. Other organs are not endowed with the same decision-making power. The whole “heart” thing is a placeholder for something else–something not tied to a physical location on our bodies. Is it our “spirit”? Our “conscience”? Our “daemon”, as the ancient Greeks believed? Is it the voice of God? I don’t know. I don’t have any answers. But the point is, there is something–something completely irrational and ungovernable, that determines how we feel about things. And policing that something is about as useless as trying to regulate how fast someone’s hair grows. It cannot be controlled. That’s the point.
Everyone thinks their own baby is the cutest child that ever lived. We accept that fact and embrace it, even though empirically it’s not possible. It’s a part of life, an irrationality that we welcome. Should we not strive to welcome other’s griefs as well, strange as they may seem to us, as proof that life, mystical and wondrous as it can be, is operating as it should? That these seeming irrationalities are evidence of something greater than biology at work?
I’m going to try, anyway. I am going to make an effort to repress my eye roll when I see someone on facebook really upset about something I don’t care about. Instead, I’m going to send them a nice message (or at least a quick text) to make sure they’re doing okay. Because grief can be horribly isolating, too. And I want my friends to know they’re not alone.
As I’ve been writing this, Che has been more active than I’ve seen him in days. That other great irrational, Hope, has been welling up in me. Maybe hope and grief are opposites that need each other to survive. If we like one, we have to accept the other. So say a prayer for my fish, would you? And take care of yourselves and those you love. Stay warm out there, guys. See you next week!!