Thursday, May 26, 2016

What an eel showed me



We've recently returned from week in far north Queensland, where we saw many great attractions. At Paronella Park the kids were given food to feed the fish on the property as part of the entry fee. The water turned out to be teeming with big, eager fish, crowding over each other to get closer to the front. Several of them had to flip onto their sides when it got too shallow to keep swimming. Then suddenly, there was a great, healthy eel in the race, slithering her way through and waiting for the next throw, just like all the fish. She even slipped right across my toes. At that moment, I changed the idea I'd always had about eels. Without much evidence, I'd imagined them to be brainless, slimy creatures which some people like to eat. This one was more like a cute little girl begging, 'Choose me, choose me!' (Our tour guide told us that all the eels on the property are female, and the males can be found further out to sea.) Her skin was sleek and glossy and her reflexes were finely tuned.

As a race, we humans make judgments and stereotypes so automatically. It's not our fault, but partly how the human brain is wired. I remember learning in Psychology that we make sense of the world by mentally storing things in boxes, even when the things we think we believe aren't necessarily true. For example, I neatly tucked eels away in the same category as the creepy, slime-dripping jellyfish I used to strike when swimming. This tendency can be useful, especially during our early years when we're making sense of the world. However, it has the potential to severely limit us if we let it keep going unchecked for the rest of our lives. It can be bad for the people, places and things we're unconsciously judging, as there's nothing more frustrating than trying to change minds which are set like concrete. It's also really sad for us to live in the narrow, rigid parameters we set for ourselves.

I believe we can open up new vistas of thought for ourselves, when we make a point of remembering that it's not an entirely predictable world, but one in which people and critters have the potential to surprise us all the time. That's where good writing may play its part. The type of books I enjoy reading are those which are fresh enough to challenge the opinions we've already made. The pens of the authors also turn out to be tools which help us hammer and chisel cracks into our discrimination, prejudice and automatic assumptions.

The people of first century Jerusalem had their fixed notions challenged. They believed that everyone who had his life shortened by the sentence of crucifixion was a no-good menace whose name would sink into obscurity, never to be heard of again. Were they wrong!

I've come across people who have told me, 'I never read fiction, because it's a waste of time, when you can be reading so much better material which is actually true.' They don't realise they've adopted the mindset that fiction cannot possibly hold its own sort of truth. Then they deprive themselves of a whole wealth of literature which might have the potential to move them deeply.

The man who built Paronella Park was a visionary who ignored stereotypes himself. Jose Paronella was a Spanish migrant and baker by trade, who fulfilled his childhood dream of building a fairytale castle on his property. His pragmatic neighbours told him, 'It's just weird to do something like that here in Australia,' but he didn't listen to them. I'm glad those fish and eels are finding it such a fertile place to live so many years after his death.


I want to keep training myself to watch out for extreme reactions which cause an emotional response to rise in me, and ask myself, 'Have I really got the facts right this time, or is it another eel?'

Have you noticed any eel reactions over the years, in yourselves or others?



Paula Vince is a South Australian author of contemporary, inspirational fiction. She lives in the beautiful Adelaide Hills, with its four distinct seasons, and loves to use her environment as settings for her stories. Her novel, 'Picking up the Pieces' won the religious fiction section of the International Book Awards in 2011, and 'Best Forgotten' was winner of the CALEB prize the same year. She is also one of the four authors of 'The Greenfield Legacy', Australia's first and only collaborated Christian novel. Her most recent novel, 'Imogen's Chance' was published April 2014. For more of Paula's reflections, you may like to visit her book review blog, The Vince Review.

14 comments:

  1. Loved your post Paula. Thank you. Isn't it wonderful how we constantly are challenged to think outside the box? I loved it how that Eel changed all your suppositions by the way it acted. Reminds me that nothing in life is as simple as it seems and it does well for us to go beyond what we imagine about anything. Thank you for giving us permission as it were to surprise the world and also to allow the world to surprise us. Perhaps we writers need to take a leaf off the book of Jose Paronella and reach beyond ourselves, not listening to our pragmatic neighbours. :) Thanks Paula.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Anusha,
      We never know where reminders to think outside the box will come from, do we? That man was a true visionary, and I appreciate that even now, years after his death, the eels on his property are still challenging me. The property is mostly covered with moss and has a very nostalgic and surreal feeling to walk around in. An unexpected find in Australia indeed.

      Delete
  2. Fantastic post Paula - love how you point out that boxes and labels can help us understand the world, but that we need to keep pushing past stereotypes. God' loves to surprise our normal human assumptions about people, about Him and about the world. :)

    I also love Paronella Park - wonderful place - and know exactly where you feed the fish. Do you get to see the micro-bats as well? It's a magical place :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Jenny,
      That sort of surprise is my favourite. Just when think we've got our heads wrapped around the way something works, it's good to have things shaken up that way.
      Yes, we saw the bats in the tunnel, and also some turtles and glowing mushrooms. We arrived in time to have a walk around in the daylight and then do the night tour as well. That was a great day.

      Delete
    2. I might add that I'm glad we went when we did, and not a week later. After really heavy rains, the water levels rose too high for the up close and personal experience with the marine life we had.

      Delete
    3. The night tour sounds special. Must factor that in next time we visit :)

      Delete
  3. Loved the way you used that analogy, Paula. Little boxes,indeed! We're all guilty of that and it often takes some undoing to be receptive to the new. Yes, I've come across those with a slightly superior attitude of only reading 'the truth'. Think of all the moral stories we learned as kids. And even Jesus used certain parables to illustrate spiritual truths.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Rita,
      I once read a pastor's book which reminded us that Jesus would have been renowned more as a storyteller or bard among the common folk, rather than the sort of itinerant preacher we might think of. That changed some of the fixed ideas I had too, and helped me to see our occupation in a different light.

      Delete
  4. Thanks Paula for an interesting post. I find myself being constantly challenged to think outside the box and I think that as writers we should practice that. How can we possibly learn new things or unlearn old ideas if we aren't willing to be challenged.

    A little eel story for you. Several years ago I was bragging about never being afraid to try something once. I was referring to food actually and my very English brother-in-law decided he was going to prove that I wasn't telling the truth. He challenged me. I said okay I would try anything he could come up with. Okay! With an 'evil' grin on his face he went to the refrigerator and produced a jar of jellied eels! I had to stand by what I said of course so a small serving of the contents of the jar went down the hatch. As I am still here to tell this tale I think it's sufficient to say that with a great deal of will I kept them down even but as I think back on this I think that I proved a point to myself. They weren't that bad, (she said with a grimace on her face) but I have to admit they will never be my favourite type of food and no I have never repeated the dose. My brother-I need-law was impressed. He thought he'd got me!

    The moral of this story should possibly be I shouldn't brag about such things but how would I ever know that jellied eels were not something I'd not order at a restaurant if I hadn't risen to the challenge?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Lesley,
      Good on you for not backing down, but I don't think I could have been so brave. It sounds like the sort of delicacy people either love or hate.
      Just last night, my daughter was out for dinner at Chinatown with her friends, who all have Asian backgrounds, and they were challenging her to eat all sorts of unrecognisable foods, which turned out to be cows' stomach lining and other offal delights. She said she wasn't game to try most of them though.

      Delete
  5. Ha ha, Paula! Who'd have thought an eel would give you a flash of revelation?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Lol, I know, of all things! I guess it's also a message not to assume that we won't find inspiration in certain places :)

      Delete
  6. Yes, Paula, plenty of those reactions. We just discussed the topic pride & prejudice at our last WOW meeting (WOW = women of wisdom, or more to the point, women seeking wisdom :). Stereotyping and prejudice seem to be wired into our fallen nature, even when we know better. I shall remember to ask, "Is this one of Paula's eels?" Good pictorial.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Margaret, that sounds like a great group. Yes, as you say, trying to stay aware is our best action, since these tend to crop up continuously.

      Delete