There’s more to living than only surviving. Maybe I’m not there, but I’m still trying.
— The Offspring, Staring at the Sun
The book uses a short story to draw a parallel to life’s unexpected changes. It’s about a goldfish that leads a happy life in his bowl until he’s accidentally swept into the ocean during a trip to the beach. In the open water where no one feeds him, he’s convinced that he’s done for until a friendly shark teaches him to fend for himself.
The story is incredibly corny, and the first time I read it I dismissed it immediately. It wasn’t until I needed to read it again for a book review I was asked to write that I began to appreciate its message.
The author states that he’s received considerable criticism about just how short and simple The Shark and the Goldfish is. According to Gordon, critics believe books “must be long and complicated to be significant.” Typically, I would agree with that mindset — but the fact that this tiny book has inspired me to write more than one article about it makes me recognize how its success is a result of its succinctness.
The most profound dialogue in the story comes from the shark, in a conversation where he challenges the goldfish’s thinking:
“You know what your problem is?”
“I’m starving and no one will feed me.”
“No, you are waiting to be fed.”
Waiting to be fed. When the words hit me, I likened myself to the goldfish in the bowl — content with his life as long as he was being fed. I wondered how many of us simply go through the motions of life without actually living.
Refusing to venture outside of our fishbowl-routine isn’t living, it’s just … surviving. The fact that we often need something drastic to force us out of the bowl and to quit sleepwalking through our lives is disappointing.
Unexpected things that forever change our lives happen to all of us. A few years ago my girlfriend and I were comfortably living our lives, with two paychecks feeding us, when she was diagnosed with cancer. She stopped working to focus on her health, and shortly thereafter I learned that I might lose my job. The feeling was like being swept out to sea.
I reacted out of necessity. I found another job quickly, and we somehow managed to stay afloat. It was the toughest year of my life, and I remember a cycle of emotions where I bounced from being angry, to sad, to worried and back again all the time. I remember writing my How to Be Happy when Everything Sucks article in a haze of depression, where I was writing for the sole purpose of trying to convince myself that everything was going to be okay.
The positive things that came out of that experience is that my girlfriend recovered, our relationship was strengthened, and I learned the importance of attitude. It’s difficult to maintain a positive attitude when the world is shitting on you, but in the face of adversity you manage to find a way. During these challenging times you recognize how you can’t control the events in your life. You can, however, choose how you react to them.
The same is true for when you’re living comfortably. When nothing’s going on outside of your routine, you can choose to stagnate and feel content with the way things are. You’ll end up waiting until something unexpected forces you to take action.
On the other hand, you can choose to challenge yourself and be progressive by working towards your personal development goals. Although you may suffer some embarrassment or the occasional blow to your pride when things don’t work out the way you want them to, you’re still trying. This is the difference between living and surviving, and it’s your choice.
Once you recognize that, you’ll understand that you have more control over your life than ever. Which camp are you in?
(If you want to read more about Gordon’s The Shark and the Goldfish, see the Book Review I wrote for The Daily Leap)
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