You know this story, don’t you? Let’s see if I can tell it:
Two little fish are out for a morning swim. They pass by a much, much older fish. The Old Fish says to the little fish as he passes by, “Mornin’, boys. How’s the water?” The little fish answer back immediately, “Fine, sir, thank you!” The little fish just keep swimming along until the Old Fish is long out of view and one of the fish turns to the other and says, “What the hell is water?”
I haven’t given many sermons, but I think 60% of them have begun with that story. This is for two reasons: 1) I first encountered this fable in a graduation address that writer David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College…four or five years ago? The whole speech was Foster Wallace, a self-identified atheist, telling the graduates that they should find room in their lives for BELIEF in something ultimate. Why? Why would the atheist be promoting faith of some kind? Because Foster Wallace was a brilliant man who recognized that people are hardwired to believe. Though he invoked different words, he essentially echoed James Fowler’s theory of Faith Development. Fowler studied belief and decided that people WILL worship something beyond themselves, the only question is if they will worship something finite and controllable (i.e. personal wealth, physical appearance, etc.) or something Ultimate (God, for example). Foster Wallace said it a little bit differently, which made the message more accessible for myself and my youth group:
“The compelling reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship –- be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.”
The Fish Story is how he leads into this idea, and that is what I have always liked about it. It simply and clearly illustrates that Truth, the stuff that holds reality together, the stuff that gives life, and hold us so we don’t fall, is so pervasive, so all encompassing…that only the wise know of its existence.
2) (Remember, I started numbering these?) I enjoyed using this story in sermons, not just because I found it simple and powerful, but also because I thought I understood it. I thought I could very easily and clearly have the water represent God; the Old Fish is aware of It, what It is, how It works…but the little fish have no idea. And maybe when they find out what Water is, maybe they even have a little atheism phase of their own, “You are NOT going to tell me that you believe there is this invisible, tasteless liquid that helps me breathe and surrounds me! Have you READ a science book?!” So, it was simple, relateable, and I thought I had a handle on the “truth” of it.
I didn’t. Because it’s a fable, and therefore it has no ONE truth. It has many truths. The water is not JUST God. The water is anything that provides life, gives sustenance, and–a part I had overlooked until the last few weeks–HOLDS you. Obviously, as a person of faith, I attempt to rely on God for all those things. But, apparently, I am not at yet at a level of spirituality that allows me to completely forgo everything BUT God. I know….I was shocked too. (That was sarcasm. It has been brought to my attention that sarcasm doesn’t translate through blogs. So…that was sarcasm. I’m a 28 year old straight white guy from Arizona in the 21st Century…I think it stands to reason that I have yet to reach enlightenment. And I’m aware of this. Plus, I talk about poop a lot.)
The most frustrating part about living in another country, so far, has been dealing with the official, beuracratic aspects of it. This is mainly because, while it is true that many people speak English–all German students above 5th Grade are required to have at least some English–absolutely no one in the immigration offices speak English, even a little bit. Now, please don’t read this as me saying these folks did not pass the 5th grade. They were nice (kind of), and I don’t want to say mean things about them. All I’m saying is: No one in the immigration offices in Wuppertal, Germany speak English. I don’t actually think anything is wrong with this. I mean, people immigrate from all over the world to Germany, would I expect them to speak EVERY language? Absolutely not. So why would it be fair to expect them to speak English? It’s not. And I don’t. BUT, this fact, however understandable it may be, has made my last few weeks in Germany really frustrating.
Not once, not twice, not three, but FOUR times now, I have showed up to this office, believing with all my heart that I had done all the things I needed to do and brought with me all the things I need to brought…and I have failed to accomplish getting a Visa to stay in the country. This morning, however, I did manage to receive a temporary Visa that buys me some time to finish doing everything right. So that’s great. Everything really is fine, and it was an excellent learning experience.
I will say, however, that nothing has made me feel more alone in my life. It wasn’t just the miscommunication, or how terrible it was to feel simultaneously helpless and abused, AND stupid and annoying. The thing that really made me feel so alone was…I was alone. See, most everyone else at the place had someone with them to assist them in the process. I did not see many (if any) people there alone; everyone had someone with them, most of whom were translating from German to their native tongue. They had a go-between, a translator, a guide, a Patron to facilitate between the Outsider and the governing power. I didn’t have that.
Growing up in America, you hear all the time about “China Town,” and “Little Italy,” the idea of neighborhoods where lots of people immigrated from the same part of the world and settled down together; it is a very normal thing to me. And maybe BECAUSE it is such a normal thing to hear about–and yet something that I have never experienced for myself–I have failed to appreciate the power of it. I have failed to appreciate how important it is to have people around you to help hold you, help guide you, help provide a space for you to breathe…especially when you are a fish out of water.
Several years ago, I was about to lead the youth group to the Gulf Coast to assist in recovery from Hurricane Katrina. I had no idea how to frame this event, or how to help the youth (or myself) get the most out of this experience while also being helpful to the people ravaged by the storm. So while on vacation to Beloit College, I visited with an economics professor who I had heard was doing a research project on how people were recovering in the New Orleans area. I asked her some questions, and what she shared with me in our conversation was that there were certain neighborhoods in New Orleans–for example, a Vietanamese neighborhood–that were getting back on their feet faster than others. Part of her research was looking at possible reasons for why this was true. She said what they found was, in part, the fact of being Vietanemese immigrants in America prepared them for this kind of situation. In a sense, they had relied on each other for so much BEFORE the storm, that coming together and rebuilding afterwards was easier for them than it was for more diversified neighborhoods. In a way, they had always been looking out for one another and fending for one another in the constant storm that was their immigrant experience in America, and after August 2005 they just continued to do that, but with flooding. For other communities, the very act of coming together and assisting one another was difficult, so making progress in the wake of the storm was even harder.
I had my first sighting of another American the other day. It was the first person I had seen since arriving in Germany who I could clearly identify as American. He was probably a few years younger than myself, and he was taking a German class on the same floor as me. He was holding court with a few co/eds who were about his age, and the topic of conversation seemed to be, “Here’s all the ways and times in which I have been completely messed up on drugs and alcohol, and that is why I love being an American.” I went directly into the bathroom, even though I didn’t need a bathroom, and I didn’t come out until his voice faded away behind sea of female giggles, and then into a classroom.
And that’s the thing, really. I came to Germany largely to run away from America. I wanted to see what the rest of the world has to offer, I wanted an adventure, I wanted to see what I could learn about myself by going somewhere and living in a way that I never have before…but I also just really got tired of America. And now, from the outside looking in, what I can say for sure is: I miss my water. I have problems with our country. I don’t mean JUST politically or socially, although that doesn’t make it easy. But I mean…existentially. I have never been completely comfortable. I have never really felt “normal” or “OK,” even though, speaking socio-economically, I am both those things. I thought getting out of the country would allow me to feel more free, would allow me to explore who I am and what I believe, outside of the influence of my culture.
So, basically, if I were a fish, I would be saying, “This water sucks. I’m going to find some new stuff.” But fish are dependent upon their specific environment for survival. Leaving the water doesn’t improve them as individuals…it kills them. As humans, we only know who we are in community. Community gives us context. Community defines us as much as we define it. A person removed from Community does not learn more about themselves…it just makes that person a fish out of water. And then you suffocate.
So, in conclusion, I find myself reflecting on the Practical and the Theological:
1) The Practical: For all the anger and fear that I hear from America about “illegal” immigration, I hear very little about “legal” immigration; except, that is, from folks who are somehow intimately familiar with the process of Legal Immigration, who will tell you that it is a nightmare. A nightmare that you have to pay a lot of money for. The fact is that, as frustrated and lonely and exhausted and defeated as I have felt in the past few weeks, I have it easy. I am white, I am male, and that gives me a huge leg up in a culture that is also white and predominantly patriarchical. I also speak a little (key word: little) German. I also have family and friends who are willing and able to help me (they just aren’t able to go with me to the immigration office). And those are things that many immigrants to America don’t necessarily have going for them. What we don’t appreciate is how COMPLETELY disorienting and difficult and hopeless it can feel to attempt to make a new life for yourself in a foreign country, ESPECIALLY when you don’t speak the language. It has definitely changed my perspective of my own responsibility to immigrants in my country. It’s not enough to defend people’s rights; if I really cared about Serving The Other, then I would also be helping to Welcome new citizens to my country, and making it as easy as possible for them to breathe and sustain themselves and their families there. If our problem with immigrants is really their “legal” status, then why are we not doing more to reach out and serve Legal immigrants?
2) The Theological: I’ve spent so much time being angry at Americans in general, that I have not properly appreciated My Community specifically. Some immigrants settle into areas with people from their homeland because it makes it easier to start a new life. That is what Family and Friends and My Church make possible for me. They are who hold me so I don’t fall. They are who help me breathe and guide me towards hope. As deep as my faith runs, it does not yet pervade my life to the extent that my Community does. And I think, in so many ways, it took me leaving America, it took me jumping out of water, to be able to say: Thank you. Thank you to all of you who love me and hold me and guide me. You are my water, and without you I don’t drink, I don’t breathe, I don’t swim…I suffocate. I hope and pray that I have the awareness and the courage to provide such comfort for you.
The loneliness I have felt in the last weeks is a blessing, because it helped me understand that I am NEVER alone. I have shared many jokes, observations, non-sequiters, and swear words with God over the last few weeks. We’ve had a good time. And it deepens my apprecition for not just being a Beloved Creation of The Lord My God, but also having a Community surrounding me that has helped me to KNOW of that reality. To have a Community that has pointed at this larger reality and said, “Be grateful, baby. You are loved.”
And I pray to be that Bringer of Water for others; so that others may be blessed as I have been.