Fish Tank Wisdom: The Healing Power of Forgiveness

Photo by Adli Wahid on UnSplash

One summer several years ago, we had 11 “fish funerals” at our house. I remember the last one distinctly because this particular guppy was named “Spot” because of a dark grey dot he had on one side. The tiny aquatic life had moved into my young son’s fish tank just one week before, but apparently, he didn’t take to life in the new ‘hood. So, we said a brief prayer over the toilet and sent the poor guy to his final resting place with a ceremonial flush.

With that many bathroom burials under our belts, we started to search for the underlying cause of my son’s previously healthy fish passing to the Great Beyond so suddenly. 

After some research, we discovered the problem was ammonia. Evidently, the body of the first fish who died in the tank (and sadly went unnoticed) released ammonia that quickly grew to toxic levels. So in effect, by failing to remove the first dead fish from the tank, we poisoned the whole lot of them. 

RELATED: Can We Forgive Someone While Still Wanting Justice?

Our fish tank fiasco taught me far more than a science lesson about toxic substances, though. Instead, I learned a great deal about forgiveness.

Like everyone else who has dared to love another person, I have at times been deeply hurt. Harsh words from family members over the care of my elderly parents, the professional betrayal of a trusted colleague, and dishonesty on the part of someone I care deeply about have all caused me great pain. That pain has led to sleepless nights and crying jags, bitter words and stony silence, anger and resentment. I played each situation over and over in my head knowing that I was “right,” that I was the injured party each time, and that I didn’t deserve the way I was treated. I had claimed the moral high ground while wallowing in self-pity.

What’s worse is that for too long, I refused to forgive the person who hurt me. Sure, I was able to say, “Yes, I accept your apology,” but deep inside I really hadn’t. I became attached to the feelings of superiority that come with righteous indignation, and I truly enjoyed my status as an “innocent victim.” The moral high ground became an attractive place to set up camp. After all, I was the one who was wronged.

But in time, I noticed that my refusal to let go of my anger started to have some less-than-superior consequences. I found myself guarded and defensive, even with people who had been nothing but kind and generous with me. I would occasionally snap at my husband and son without provocation, and I found it harder and harder to exercise any degree of patience. I could almost feel a physical tightness in my chest, like the clenching of a fist. 

RELATED: Forgiveness as a Source of Renewal

In short, I’d poisoned my fish tank. It took me longer than it should have, but I eventually realized that forgiveness isn’t a gift for the offender; it’s a grace we allow for ourselves. 

Letting go of my hurt isn’t easy, but I find that there are a few things that help me get there eventually. One is journaling. Getting my uncensored feelings down on paper serves to both quell my anger and help me see that not all of my conclusions are logical. When I see my thoughts in black and white, I’m able to recognize that I’m not completely blameless. Another thing that helps is silence. Once I stop arguing with these people in my head, the silence that replaces all that noise has a calming, restorative effect on me. It’s hard to be angry when you’re feeling peaceful. Once I’m truly able to let go of my hurt – and the false sense of righteousness I create as a means of covering up the pain – the tightness in my chest begins to ease. And amazingly, the tightness that’s developed in my relationships disappears as well.

Maybe it’s our refusal to let go of old hurts and disappointments that poisons our ability to appreciate the beauty and wonder of a life that practices forgiveness. For me, perhaps one tiny piece of fish tank wisdom is knowing the importance of putting past hurts to rest. I forgave the family member whose words hurt me, the colleague who betrayed me, and the loved one who was dishonest. And amazing things happened as a result. I felt lighter and freer almost immediately because I no longer had to carry around the heavy burden of blame. Now I’m more patient, not only with others but with myself and my shortcomings because I know if I’ve been hurt, I’ve hurt others too. I sleep a thousand times better, cry a lot less, and laugh a lot more. In the end, I found that giving up my resentment gave me so much more in return.

Mary Ann Steutermann

Mary Ann Steutermann is currently the director of campus ministry at Assumption High School, an all-girls Catholic high school in Louisville, Kentucky. A career educator, she has more than 20 years experience as an English teacher, assistant principal, and principal and does freelance writing on the side. She holds a bachelor's degree in English and two master's degrees in education. Mary Ann lives in Louisville with her husband and son.