Just like the fish in the ancient Chinese proverb, ‘A fish is the last one to know what water is’, everyone has ‘water’ that they swim in – an unconscious understanding of life and the world which shapes and colours all that we do, think and say.
This ‘water’ is a combination of the culture we grew up in, the sub-section of that culture that our family was part of and the distinctive understandings of life that are important to our particular family. For me, my culture was white Australian, the sub-section was conservative middle-class Christian and my family was a strong, self-contained but somewhat isolated unit (I have no cousins and only met some second cousins in mid-life).
Just like the fish in its own bowl of water, I swam in my ‘water’ quite oblivious to its reality and its impacts on my understanding of the world. This ‘water’ had been the norm for me since birth and I rarely questioned its validity or the subtle effect it had on my outlook – not until I went to Nauru.
Being immersed in a culture other than my own, mixing with people from many nations (The Salvation Army team consisted of people from Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Burma, US, New Zealand, Australia, UK, Vietnam and Nauru), hearing so many different languages swirl around me, and working with staff of different faiths (Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, atheist) opened my mind and heart to ways of looking at life that were different, and yet still similar, to my own.
When I returned to my ‘water’ at the end of the contract and took time to reflect on all I’d experienced, I began to reassess. I could now see the ‘water’ I’d been swimming in all my life and recognise its impact (fear and a sense of superiority).
I now had a decision to make.
My ‘water’ was real, its impact on my life was real, but I was no longer completely happy swimming in that ‘water’. There were aspects to my life that I saw needed to change.
And I had a choice.
I could be like the fish and continue to swim in this ‘water’ of my culture, faith and upbringing, without questioning how healthy it was. Or I could be like a tadpole, which also begins life in water but which, as it matures, grows into a frog and leaves the water behind.
I chose to be a frog.
I was thankful for much that my ‘water’ had given me, but I knew that it was no longer a healthy place for me to live. I knew there were other ways of looking at life and other cultural understandings which were as valid as my own. There were other stories that I needed to listen to and explore.
So I chose to be a frog and leave the ‘water’ behind.