The man who wanted fish.

This is the story of a man who wanted fish. It happened a long time ago. I was just out of art school and I was working at a fish market which was right on a busy city street, and in walked a man who looked homeless. He was definitely a raggedy man and he had an old black bible in his hand. He came up to the counter and said, “By the grace of God, I would like some fish.”

I said to him, “Do you have any money?”

He said, “No, I do not, but God said, ‘Ask and you shall receive,’ and by the grace of God, I would like to have some fish.”

He was pretty persistent but I said no, I can’t give you any fish. I said, “I’m sorry, but it’s not my fish to give. These are the rules. I don’t make the rules. I just work here.”

I didn’t give him any fish and eventually he walked out.

I realize now looking back on it that all those lines and rules about whether I could give the man some fish or not, those were all imaginary, really.

I’m sorry to say that I didn’t do it. I wish I had been more wise and aware at that moment, but looking back on it now, it is clear there was nothing, absolutely nothing, stopping me.

I absolutely had the power. I was the man running the fish market. Nobody was watching me. I wouldn’t have got in trouble. I could have easily just taken some fish out of the case and given it to him, and I didn’t.

The things that constrained me were not real. They were imaginary. So where I was really constrained was in my own mind. I was constrained in my own imagination by these invisible rules and boundaries. Who owns the fish market? Who owns the fish? Who’s the owner? What were the rules of the game that I was playing? I was going in and I was working my shift and at the end of the day I’d go home and I’d get a paycheck.

Thinking about it now, I wish I had given the guy some fish. I think it would have been the right thing to do at that moment.

How many times have you been in a situation where you’re trying to do something with a business, maybe you have a complaint, and you’re talking to another person across the counter, or perhaps on the phone and you’re asking them to do something, and you know that it makes perfect sense and the person on the other end or the other side perfectly understands, and you both agree, and you both know that it makes sense, but that person says, for some reason, “The system won’t allow me to do that,” or, “I’m sorry, it’s against the rules. I’m sorry, I can’t do that.”

I’ve had this happen so many times in my life, and I have been on both sides of it, and I’m sure you have too. The fact is that it’s not that the system won’t allow you to do things. It’s that your own mind is not allowing you to do that.

It’s these rules that are living in our minds that are constraining us like this all the time. We don’t have to be constrained by them. We’re only constrained by them because we choose to be constrained by them. There are so many rules like this, and invisible boundaries and rules that constrain us all the time, and we rarely question them.

It’s okay to ask questions about rules and boundaries. We need to question them more often.

This is a practice I call liminal thinking.

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