Fishy Fish Facts

In my TED Talk and book I share a story from my wife’s childhood: Her father described how fish swim by wagging their tails. Precocious Dorothy thought a bit, then responded with a lesson of her own. Fish swim backward by wagging their heads, she informed her father, and she believed it.

Her harmless childhood belief serves as my metaphor for myriad self-created “truths” in our adult lives that can be quite harmful. I love to think of these false truths as fish in our minds swimming by in reverse unnoticed and undisturbed. If we can see them eyes wide open—pay attention and think critically—their falseness becomes glaring. They stand out, clear as day, something amiss. Once detected, a backward-swimming fish is not easily ignored. Because fish don’t swim backward, of course.

Except some fish do swim backward. A knowledgeable TED viewer wrote to inform me as much, mentioning the Black Ghost Knifefish (pictured here) as an example. As explains, The knifefish “is a marvel in the animal world when it comes to movement.” It can “quickly move in all directions—including backward.”

What to make of this news?

Because I am a (recovering) lawyer, before proceeding any further I must defend the continued viability of my metaphor! (I can’t help myself.) While the Knifefish can swim backward, it doesn’t wag its head to do so. Directional agility derives from the undulations of “the stomach fin of the knifefish,” not its head. And in all events, little Dorothy had goldfish in her tank, not Black Ghost Knifefish. The image of Dorothy’s fish swimming in reverse, wagging their heads, survives unscathed, as does its symbolism.

This position firmly established, I can now acknowledge that there is irony in my unawareness of the knifefish and its uncommon talents. Dorothy’s fictitious fish are meant to represent the faulty assumptions we experience as incontrovertible truth in our minds (among other things). But did I make a faulty assumption in selecting these fish for their weighty role? Did I consider the story about little Dorothy and her dad so fitting for my thematic purposes because on some level I assumed that no fish swim backward (wagging their heads or otherwise)? Did my central parable about assumptions rest in part on a flawed assumption?

A cautionary tail wags my metaphoric fish: “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Sometimes a fish swimming backward is a fish swimming backward. With a practiced discipline to live eyes wide open—to search for the self-imposed aspects of “reality” that we in fact control—we risk questioning too much, going too far. Not all of our assumptions are baseless and pernicious. Some are the product of sound intuition or inductive reason. The point is to decipher which are which, not to reject all of them out of hand. We’re better off assuming that the sun will rise tomorrow.

There’s a deeper, more nuanced lesson here: like deep lessons, life is nuance. The details matter. We sacrifice truth for love of the absolute, embrace the simplicity of the extreme over the complexity of the accurate, settle for close enough without realizing that it leaves us too far away. This is our nature. But truth and meaning are colored with the uncertain grays that define the human existence.

To whom should we attribute the aforementioned quotation about unembellished tobacco—the cigars that are just cigars? Sigmund Freud? Perhaps. Well, did he ever utter the famous phrase? We don’t really know. Probably not. But maybe. (For example, this article concludes that “Unless additional documentation is located,” it is “reasonable to assert that Freud probably did not make this statement.”)

Does the ambiguity of its origin diminish the quotation’s meaning? To the contrary, I think it adds deeper meaning, another dimension. We want to believe Freud made the quip, though it flies in the face of his dogmatic approach. Why? And if not Freud, then who said it first? How did his or her authorship become lost to the historical record? How did the myth perpetuate and reenforce itself? Does the apocryphal attribution undermine the point of the expression itself (nothing is simple)? What other famous “quotations” do we misattribute? It’s an uncertain story, a messy one, but far more stimulating.

We can say the same of Dorothy’s fish. At first blush they exemplified a childish leap of logic both sweetly innocent and obviously incorrect. But we looked again and there was more to their lesson. Some fish do swim backward, though they don’t use their heads. Perhaps still undiscovered fish might someday threaten that distinction, too. What can we really say about Dorothy’s “childish” perspective after all? And isn’t the point not the answer but the very inquiry?

Likewise with the assumptions those fish are meant to signify. It’s not whether our assumptions are right or wrong. It is how they are right and how they are also wrong. It is about why we’re tempted to make them in the first place. It’s about choosing not to do so, choosing to look more carefully, to scrutinize the details, to ponder the nuances, to see eyes wide open.

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-Isaac Lidsky


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