Swimming in a fishbowl, year after year

My mother used to tell me when I was still living at home that high school was like a fishbowl. Proximity distorted things so they looked much larger than they actually were. It was easy to hear this advice and far more difficult to listen to it, to internalize or accept it. It didn’t matter that in some logical part of my brain I understood that she was right, understood that things that felt like a big deal actually weren’t, because what you see before you with your two eyes, it seems big. Panoramically, all-consuming-ly, big. Once high school was over and some time and space had passed, things shifted into their normal size and shape, taking up the space they should have and maybe always had.

What I realize now is that high school isn’t the only fishbowl, that it isn’t like you graduate at eighteen and can suddenly see everything with clear, undistorted vision. The fishbowl doesn’t belong to a specific period, it is a very specific perspective that one can unwittingly adopt for any length of time—for an entire life. The fishbowl perspective is all about looking at things up close, up so close that everything else around you blurs until you almost can’t see it. It’s about the magnification of objects, the distortion of reality, the exaggeration of importance. And if you don’t force it to, it never has to end.

College, in many ways, is almost more prone to the fishbowl perspective than high school ever was, and not just because we don’t all have our mothers standing in the kitchen explaining the distortion to us while the water boils. We are in a tiny, self-contained community with its own physical domain, its own rules, its own lingo, its own order. How terrifyingly easy it is to completely lose sight of the outside world, to stick your head so far into that fishbowl that sometimes it seems like nothing else exists but what’s right in front of you. I think we can start to lose sight of who we are in a larger sense, of the things we want and the things that matter to us. We unconsciously slide into focusing only on our immediate surroundings so that suddenly the only things that matter are ten points on a test or finding a date to a formal or how to punctuate a text message. The magnification is real, and it is considerable.

The inherent danger that lies in looking at the world through a fishbowl is that the real big things, the overarching things, get eclipsed by the inflation of small things, of things in your immediate surroundings. It is possible to start losing sight of the truly important things, the things that matter long-term, the absolute truths due to the swelling of the immediate present. By shifting to fit the environment we see ourselves in, to accommodate the amplification of the things around us, we begin to shrink ourselves, fold ourselves into uncomfortable positions to fit the space we have left. Suddenly it seems we can forget entire parts of who we are in order to focus on things that are only fleetingly important.

Another thing I am reminded of is the classic old lady/young woman optical illusion that contains two possible perspectives on the same image. In one viewing, the picture depicts an old lady with a large nose wearing a scarf over her head, and in the other, a young woman facing away from the viewer with a feather in her hair. Most people either see one image or the other, and some find it impossible to see anything else. What it is important to remember is that both are there, and training your eyes to be able to switch back and forth is both the difficult part and the crucial part.

It is not to say that nothing small is important, that tiny things about your everyday life can’t be amazing and beautiful and significant. The key is to be able to tell the difference. Some things get distorted and enlarged and magnified so that suddenly we are spending innumerable precious moments worrying or thinking about things that aren’t worth our time, and some little things that could make all the difference get lost in the shuffle. It’s all about perspective. It’s all about recognizing that size and importance don’t always map precisely onto each other.

And also it’s important that no matter which version of the picture you see first, that the other version is always there, even if it takes your eyes a while to see it, to remember it exists. When I feel like I’m getting too caught up in the things directly in front of me and starting to forget what lies outside the fishbowl, starting to only be able to see one version of the picture, I have to take a step back and think about the pillar-sized things, the constant things, the things I can feel deep in my chest. I think about the way my heart swells when I stand in the mountains, the tingling on my skin when music seems to activate every cell in my body, the sting behind the hollows of my cheekbones when something happy makes me cry, the shaky adrenaline that ripples through my veins when I do something that scares me. It’s about the people who are three-dimensional in your life, about the things you care about so deeply you almost can’t breathe, the places that feel like they’re in your bones.

It’s not to belittle the importance of everything around you, to write off the impact of every day actions– it’s simply to say that sometimes a healthy dose of perspective can be everything– the difference between losing yourself and holding on to yourself, the difference between being happy or unhappy, the difference between getting a headache, and really, really, seeing.


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