#426 Swimming upstream

This evening I ended up contemplating fish. Specifically, fish swimming upstream.

Have you ever had that kind of a day where everything is a slog? A fight? A grit-your-teeth-and-hang-on-to-your-sanity-by-your-fingertips-with-all-your-might sort of struggle? I was in the middle of yoga class, clearly having failed to empty my mind and let go of all those bothersome concerns and cursing my lack of balance and bad ankle before giving up and sinking gracelessly to the floor to gather the tattered shreds of my composure. Because clearly, I can’t balance on one leg to save my life right now, but dammit I can still fold myself into a pretzel while sinking my face into a cushion on the floor to lie there, catching my breath and contemplating frustration and failure. Oh and fish.

Why do fish swim upstream? I wondered, still planted face down in a cushion, folded in half cross-legged, sinking further into the deep hip and thigh stretches while everyone around me panted and sweated their way through a torturous leg routine. I mean, isn’t it like trying to run the wrong way up an escalator? Surely life is easier if you just go with the flow? But no, you have to push and resist and fight and try to change things around you that clearly don’t want to be changed. Fighting any kind of inertia, whether it’s a personal propensity to inaction, or a corporate resistance to change (of the if it’s not broke, why fix it? variety) is daunting. You swim and swim and swim uphill and just when you think you’re getting somewhere a strong swell pushes you right back down where you started.

Or maybe you take a mighty leap forward and just when you think you’re making real progress you land in a bear’s mouth and become lunch.


Either way, it’s pretty depressing. Isn’t there a Celtic legend about the Salmon of Wisdom or something like that? Why would any fish that spends its life trying to swim back upstream be considered wise?

Well, now that I’m finally home and curled up on the couch in my jammies, with a cup of tea and a slightly clearer head, I know that some fish are hardwired to return to the place of their birth in order to reproduce. And it was also the Salmon of Knowledge, not Wisdom, and no one really knows exactly why salmon were considered smart, but their uncanny ability to return to their place of birth probably had something to do with it. Science now tells us that it has to do with their keen sense of smell/taste and a built in homing instinct, but I guess to ancient Celts it might have seemed miraculous.

But really, is it still worth it? In the story, the Salmon of Knowledge gets roasted and eaten by Fionn mac Cumhaill, who gains all the wold’s wisdom and knowledge as a result, and if you think of it, isn’t that basically like taking credit for other people’s hard work? You eat some magic hazelnuts that fell into the Well of Wisdom and then you swim and swim and swim and swim upstream and then one day BAM! Next thing you know, some pimple-faced monk’s apprentice is roasting you over the coals and burns his thumb while checking to see if you’re cooked enough for his boss to eat you. Now he’s got all your knowledge and uses it to take charge of a tribe of warriors and has legends written about him. And all you get out of this is a picture in the Book of Kells.

So why do fish do it?

Well, I guess because the prize is worth it. Thousands of salmon fight to swim their way upstream. Some of them don’t make it. Some become lunch. And some go on to lay eggs for the next generation of fish.

Tomorrow I get to get up and swim upstream all over again. Maybe this time I won’t run into a bear. Maybe I’ll reach the calm waters this time.

Either way, I’ve come to the conclusion that I much rather prefer the analogy of humanity to swimming fish than to a rat race.

Featured image is from the Book of Kells, with the photo taken from the twitter account of Peritia, Journal of the Medieval Academy of Ireland.
Photo of the bear catching the salmon was obtained from the BBC website and is the property of BBC, reproduced here without permission but with no intent for commercial profit. 

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