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Something Fishy

Why don't fish kill themselves?

On a weekend trip for a family wedding to Atlanta I was the obedient tourist and made my way to the world’s biggest aquarium. Atlanta, the Coke capital of the USA, was host also to this aquarium that had a swarm of people waiting to enter this oversized water tank destination. I found myself wondering what is the attraction of watching fish? Is it that fish kill when they are hungry and they are less likely to commit suicide?

Sarah Palin recently retreated to a fishing trip after her announcement of resignation as Alaskan governor. She professed pride at swimming against the current or something equally as erudite, decompressing after her strenuous flop with her vice presidential run. I asked Hank, a Georgia Aquarium employee, for some sage insight about why he liked to watch fish go by. He cautioned me not to anthropomorphize the fish, but still insisted with a conspiratorial smile he told me that the fish have “distinct personalities.” With the whale sharks, one male swims slow, another one fast and one of the female whales is more likely to swim alone. And he said with a twinkle as if he is betraying a trade secret, confessing to a certain flirtation, “ The giant manta ray is interesting because she can be playful, some days in the tank. She does flips or dives fast to the bottom. And then there is the beluga whale which counts as a fish even if it is classified as a mammal”, he confides as if this is a scandalous redefinition, “the youngest beluga plays with enrichment devices, a fancy word for toys.” He is clearly enjoying expanding on the spectator sport of watching fish.

I ask Hank, growing a little bored with the swirling fish, “What lesson can humans take away from the tank of tiger sharks, grouper and other exotic specimens from all over the world?” He looks a little crest fallen and answers, “Why can’t we all get a long? Fish only kill when they are hungry and they need to eat, not just for the fun of it.”

I am left wandering out of the circular maze of glass, spectator of this fishy business thinking we do have something to learn. As a child psychiatrist who spends her life working with teenagers who are suicidal and have just finished a memoir about my mother’s suicide when I was four years old I drifted to thinking about how would a fish suicide? Swim too far to shallow waters or swim into an open mouthed predator? Eighty people a day die from suicide in the United States, today, tomorrow, the next day. What were they hungry for? Love? A connection that is as primal as our need to come together to be curious or marvel at a school of colorful fish and a playful giant manta ray. When my mother killed herself, now over forty years ago, I was comforted by trips to the zoo, watching gorillas holding their young ones or blowing a whirl a gig. This gave me a sense of wonder despite my loss. I can only hope that this fishy business provides a healing power of wonder.