Why Fish Don’t Have Birth Certificates

In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle defines tragedy as follows:

“If a fish is born in your aquarium and you call it John, write out a birth certificate, tell him about his family history, and two minutes later he gets eaten by another fish – that’s tragic. But it’s only tragic because you projected a separate self where there was none.”

The fish doesn’t care about its name. It is a fish and will forever behave as such, until nature takes it back and replaces it with another fish.

The interchangeability of fish does not make any individual fish less valuable. In fact, it is the interchangeability of not just fish amongst each other but between all things – stones, flowers, rivers, mountains, meteors, planets, humans, and, yes, fish – that makes life an invaluable whole and each individual a precious representative.

We would never go to a river and write birth certificates for all the fish in it. What for? The fish have no use for them! They do not aid them in the business of being a fish.

While we might occasionally need a birth certificate, for example to become president of the United States, we should afford ourselves more of the freedom we give to fish, be it the ones in the river or the ones in our aquarium at home: Don’t project more of an identity onto yourself than you need to manage your daily affairs!

Don’t make the impermanence of life more tragic than it is by covering yourself in layers upon layers of history. “I am a CEO, working mom, skier, Starbucks-lover and ventriloquist.” The more of these labels you try to hold, the sadder you’ll be when one falls down and breaks.

I use the phrase “you are not X” a lot. You are not your job. You are not your money. You are not your thoughts. It’s an important reminder, one we need often, but what happens if you play this game all the way to the end? What is left if you take away everything external? Well, you. You’ll still be you. In fact, you might be you for the first time. Your true self, the one that requires neither name nor birth certificate.

Loss, change, evolution – these things are not tragic. That’s merely nature continuing on the same eternal path it has always been on. The real tragedy is identity. That’s our source of self-inflicted suffering.

By all means, name your fish if it brings you joy, but don’t tell yourself too much of a backstory about who you are. You are you. You are valuable. And you have everything you need to be human.