A client once remarked, in response to another of my misguided attempts to get her to change, “I’m like the goldfish in a bowl of dirty water. Why should I change when it’s the water itself that needs to be cleaned?”

I pondered her words during two excellent recent events: CIP’s “The Neuroscience and Psychology of Resilience,” and TPI’s Fall Symposium, “The Trauma of Everyday Life: Perspectives from Buddhism and Psychoanalysis.” Both helped me appreciate the paradox of the goldfish in the bowl. Can either ever be free of the influence of the other? A pure holding environment is an illusion whose perpetual pursuit leads to misery. Besides, the excreting goldfish always pollutes the water in which it swims. Where, if at all, should we direct our clean-up efforts? My mind leapt from sanitation to sanity to the hyper-sanitization that comes from too much Purell and its psychological equivalent, too much positive thinking. A little murk, like a little dirt, is not only unavoidable; it’s good for us. We suffer less when we relinquish our quest for a world without suffering.

During the Symposium’s lunch break, someone at my table said, “I like this so much better than positive psychology–embracing rather than de-emphasizing darkness in our work.”

A second woman added, “But people shouldn’t brood too long, they need to move forward.”

She went on to tell us about two friends, both highly educated and well-established in their careers and lives until they were wiped out by the recession. Both had lost jobs, all their savings, their homes. One friend accepted what had happened with apparent equanimity, grateful for the $10/hour job he had just found. The other, unwilling (or unable?) to accept a drastically lower income, couldn’t find a job. Our tablemate spoke admiringly of her first friend, reprovingly of the second, whom she characterized as “angry and entitled.”

“Why shouldn’t she be angry?” I asked.

“Mindfulness training and jobs for all!” someone proposed.

We went on to discuss the increasingly toxic and polarized societal waters in which people seem more and more required to swim alone. Clearly the goldfish bowl needs a massive scouring. In light of that reality, better a resilient goldfish than a fish out of water, or out of a job! But how do we bring about enlightened social policy? When is equanimity an exploitable docility, anger the rioter’s rage that destroys one’s own community?


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