Drifting on the warm Pacific at the west shore of the big island of Hawaii I gazed through the clear view of my mask at all the many sorts of colorful fish amidst the canyons of coral. Sound, once below water, is a different world. Clicks and clacks can travel far and fast in water. The sound of my unusual form of breathing, my teeth gripping the rubbery snorkel, rushed into my ears, not masking the tremendous quiet of their realm – the fishes and sea life.
Relaxed, buoyed by the salty water, I bobbed about, watching the fish settle down from having big me hovering overhead. They look at you for a while, then go about their business. How beautiful can natural fish be? Brilliant yellows, deep blues, odd shapes and graceful ones – this was better than an aquarium; plus, I was in it.
They’re very social. From vast shimmering schools of flowing, fishes, iridescent weaving, dynamically going apart to come together in shiny swirl, to groups of groupers traveling their coastline neighborhood, to single couples guarding the nest while eating and relaxing – fishes are social. They relate with their own while they relate to all the rest of the sea, with its ever-swaying movement and diverse forms of life. They’re always looking for something to eat while they watch out to not get eaten.
Near the shore, a little fish would go up to a piece of softening piece of seaweed to take off little bites. Once and a while, he’d (or she’d, I have no way of knowing) have to scurry away when a solitary big fish would show up. The big fish would circle about a while, then tear off a big bite of the floating seaweed. Off he’d go, back to the deeps. The little fish would wait a while, come back to check, and tentatively approach the big lunch.
There’s lots of sea weed; there’s just a pecking order on who gets to have it when. Though life and death are the ultimate setting, much of the fishes seemed to make a game of it. The watch out, and they watch each other in the grand game, but most of the time, it isn’t life and death so much as what there is to do. Most of life is just living, not the ultimate drama of dying. They live in a neighborhood of characters, some little and inconsequential, some arty and beautiful, some huge and scary. They chase and hide, each playing a sort of sport.
Back on top, the sun warmed my back. In and out, I breathed precious air. The regular sounds in air were faint, remote, other-worldly. Under me, the dramas went on that we rarely notice.
Back below I noticed two middle size fish. They were sleek, thin but tall, with faint blue, slightly iridescent silvery skins. They seemed to be watching a particular area, darting off only to come back. They swam after each other, like a game of tag, or along side each other as a team, going off and coming back. Once, to my delight, one arched down in a graceful curve to gently bump nose with his mate briefly, then go on. That’s right, they kissed!
I had no idea that fish kiss.
So, I thought, this has the makings of a sermon.
Considereth the fishes of the sea, brethren and sistern. They scurry about all day looking to eat and not get eaten. But that’s not all they do. While wariness works, awareness prevails. They watch the view and each other while they watch out for themselves. They’re all playing the game.
So do we. We’re part of it. Ours is more complex and civilized, but it’s much the same game. We eat and avoid death, but most the time, there’s so much more to do.
We inherit the wariness that occupies most living creatures. It reminded me of birds. They spend more time looking up and around than picking up food. They’re wary – ready to flee. How about cats? They catch birds, but they watch out too. Even the majestic mountain lion must be shy or get slaughtered.
Maybe humans have lost their need to be wary. The rare cougar or bear awakens fears, but manifests in macho hunters killing all potential threats. Humans have only each other to be afraid of. That’s a lot. Or, it can be, given the right situation of having to kill or be killed. That happens, but mostly in wars, gangfights, crime, and family tragedy. Mostly, we don’t have to do either. We eat without much hunt and hardly ever have to be eaten.
But, predation prevails, especially by those who identify with the carnivores. Perhaps our economic exchanges are the realm where our cellular memory still watches out to eat and not get eaten. Some admire the predators, like the bear and the eagle, assuming not only that we can kill to eat, but that we will. It’s up to each one to watch out in a hungry world. All manner of predation is assumed, and in expecting it, imposed as a norm. Winning is built on losing. We think it’s normal to see huge signs that lure you in by saying “SAVE,” meaning “SPEND.” In exchanges, we smile, but maybe it’s not so sincere. We claim it’s all good for us, that enterprise spurs abundance, that the market makes its own morality, ignoring the wear and waste entailed.
This sort of rationalized thinking justifies our massive support for our “defense,” where we invade entire countries and cultures, using the very weapons we claim to be defending ourselves against. It’s for their good, we claim. We try out weapons on the hapless losers who dare try to resist. It’s a game, a gamble. We play the market and try out the big toys of weaponry. And losers? They’re part of the food chain.
The tofu and vegetable-eaters would like to opt out of the die or kill game. We can eat less sentient life than each other. They would play an abundance game of win-win. Neither scarcity, nor thievery, nor want need prevail. We can live and let live.
Though we inherit the incisors of our chimpanzee ancestors we inherit the bicuspids and molars of our foyager fore bearers. We’re sort of gorilla or gazelle-like too. Maybe we’re also of those friendly, frisky bonobos, sexy little apes. We may have come out of the eat or be eaten world of the fishes, but in the mammalian way, we picked up manifold ability and feasibility.
Let me return to the water to explain. This time, swim with me out through the gentle waves of a huge bay. Snorkeling, we easily see the sandy bottom get deeper. No coral or rocks or sea weed can be seen. It’s all just clear water about twenty feet deep. Nothing to eat. Nothing to do. Yet, for hours, spinner dolphins cavort in their pod. What are they doing there all morning and into the afternoon every day? Playing.
They’re not eating. They don’t have to worry much about being eaten by rare sharks or rarer whales. They’d rather go about together with the human swimmers or away. They like catching a floating yellow leaf on the front edge of their side fin and carrying it down or off. Dropped, it gets picked up by another dolphin or maybe a snorkeler. They seem to smile as they watch each other and us. Or maybe we mammal humans just can’t help but respond to what looks like a smile.
Some go belly to belly, one downside up. Briefly, they bump and shiver, their friends near and watching. I couldn’t see any male genitalia; maybe they were just playing around. I’d heard dolphins are like underwater bonobos; I had no idea how casual and often they cavort.
For hours the dolphins play with each other and us. Why?
Isn’t the game of life to eat and not get eaten? What are they doing? Why do otters slide down the muddy slip over and over? Is fun a part of our mammalian nature?
Mammals are manifold in their abilities and complexities compared to fishes and lizards. Mammals are closer to their babies. We thrive on the sophisticated language of nuance, of look of eye, of tone of voice, the sort of touch we feel. Fish may kiss, but mammals develop a far more intricate sort of love. Add the neo cortex to this, and human activities blossom out into endless variety.
Human babies are born too early for their size. We need to get the important large head out of little mom so we can use these big brains. Utterly vulnerable, our dependence needs family and tribe to survive. Community is part of us even as we help form it. With this one organ we can develop protection for our vulnerable skin, houses far more complex and comfortable than nests, food more varied and reliable, and all sorts of art and music. We can think. We can make music. We like poetry.
Some say we are built only of successfully selfish genes. Our ancestors were better at eating than being eaten, or we wouldn’t be here. True enough, but are we only “bloody tooth and claw”? Kindness and generosity are not natural parts of us, some say. Dawkins showed how the selfish gene is really all we are. Yet he went on to say we are also human, that we don’t have to be only selfish. We can decide to create the conditions that draw out our care, creativity, and community. Certainly, the world’s wise religious founders urged this. Be caring, forgiving, and generous. Share. Create the conditions to draw these out and magnify them. Those societies that do this well thrive; those which live by rampant predation devour themselves.
When society is led by those who only see the “bloody tooth and claw” aspect of selection and survival, who praise predation and practice it economically, we end up with losers galore. Our schools dwindle while our prisons grow. Our ecology suffers while our resources go to making others suffer. We dramatize our stories with killings and dyings, missing the wider awareness and tender moments throughout life when even the fish kiss.
Brethern, there is this game of life and death. But in it are many moments of lightness and beauty, of peace and play. No matter where our narrow leaders may try to take us, let us be the kinds of persons who don’t get eaten (in any way) while we participate in the game of life with poetry and panache. Let us build a fellowship that is neither naive nor nihilistic. Let us build a fellowship and way of life that masters eating and survival as a little part of the far grander drama of humans flowering and flourishing in the endless variety of colorful, creative community.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon
C September 3, 2006