The Anatomy of a Head Game: When the “Fish” In A Barrel Are… People

“It’s as easy as shooting fish in a barrel…”–Anonymous
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Last year, I found myself in the position of being bullied. And I’m a middle-aged woman. I’d dealt with the situation, quite sanely, by reminding myself that I was not the only person being bullied by this man, and by remembering something that the Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön said:

“If we learn to open our hearts, anyone, including the people who drive us crazy, can be our teacher.”

Thinking along these lines has helped me to realize that sometimes, the only difference between my “goodness” and someone else’s “perversity” is only that I, unlike that person, am aware of the integral and overwhelming part that ignorance plays in each of our lives. And as I always like to emphasize, when I use the term ‘ignorance,’ I use it not in the common parlance of meaning “stupid” or “idiotic,” but rather in its truest sense. And for the Buddha, ignorance was, and is, the cause of all suffering…

To be ‘ignorant’ of something is to be ‘unaware of, unenlightened regarding, some issue or aspect of one’s existence, persona, or “reality.” And idiocy is not a necessary ingredient. I have, more than once, come to be truly appalled at my own actions, finding them to be based on what I can only refer to as ignorance of the most stultifying proportions (yes, the assumption here is that I am not an idiot), and it has been these types of realizations that have helped me to find compassion for people and situations where, previously, I had none.

The bullying I’d experienced was not physical, but rather verbal, with implied promises of physical violence. I eventually learned not to engage with this individual (which turned out to be an excellent strategy), thus depriving him both of any knowledge of how I truly felt about what he was doing, and any type of bearings for knowing how much further he needed to go before lighting my fuse, or even if it had already been lit.

Nonetheless, he still bothered me. I could feel myself tensing up every time I found myself in the same room with him. I was upset whenever he said anything to me because it was always foul, and I was upset when he didn’t say anything to me because I was anticipating that he would say something. Then, one day, as I walked by, I heard him say to a friend, as he stood, one foot up on the edge of a picnic table while smoking a cigarette, “It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.” And they laughed.

Though I couldn’t honestly determine if that comment was directed towards me, I did realize that I had a problem because I’d taken it quite personally, anyway. I’d heard that expression, “…like shooting fish in a barrel,” at least a hundred times, but had never used it myself, or thought much about it. Generally, we take it to mean that if something is like “shooting fish in a barrel,” it’s easy. And I realized that I was, for lack of a better word, ‘easy.’ And whether he’d been referring to me or not, I was his “fish in a barrel,” his ‘captive audience,’ his ‘sure thing.’ He knew he’d riled me up on more than one occasion, and that he could do it again, whenever he wanted. So, I decided to do a little research on this popular expression.

Here’s what I found:

One of my favorite television shows is the Discovery Channel’s MythBusters; that is, if I had a television, I’d probably watch it on a regular basis. I discovered that the hosts of this popular show had actually dedicated an episode to testing the ease of shooting fish in a barrel. The hosts, Jamie and Adam, filled a barrel of water with 30 plastic fish. Using a shotgun, Jamie fired into the barrel, hitting only three of the fish, which is a 10 percent hit rate. What they were able to calculate, as a result of their experiment, is that the damage to real fish isn’t so much the bullets as the changes instituted to the fishes’ environment by those bullets. In other words:

“Fish are extremely sensitive to the slightest water pressure change thanks to a specialized organ they have called the lateral line, which detects water displacement, force and direction. When a bullet moving faster than the speed of sound strikes the water, it forms a high-pressure acoustic shockwave in front of it. The MythBusters calculated that a 9-millimeter gunshot delivers around 100 g-force units of pressure into the barrel.

Similar to how a loud noise can injure a person’s ear drum, such an intense pressure fluctuation from the ballistic shockwave would rupture the fishes’ blood vessels and mortally wound them, proving that you don’t even have to shoot a single fish to kill a barrel full of them.” –From MythBuster’s Database, Discovery.com

Again, this is all in view of the fact that while only hitting 10% of the fish, all will die…

So, how is this relevant to us as human beings? Well, it’s all about our physical, mental, and emotional environments. It’s also about our proximity to others, i.e., even if we’re concealed in “the crowd,” and it’s our neighbors taking the direct hits, those hits can still be fatal to us – and the ‘shooter’ not only counts on this, but also counts on our not knowing it. After learning of the latest Malaysia Air disaster of July 2014, the horror and revulsion we experienced was palpable and universal — except for the case of a few sick or tragically misguided individuals. We were all affected. And that’s how terrorists operate. Whether members of Al Qaeda, our workplace, or our personal living environment, their goal is to cause us to wake up in fear, and lie down in despair. When we are not actually experiencing harassment, bullying, or mortal threats, we are, instead, anticipating them. The fear and dread are, as they say, in the water…

So, we can pretend, as much as we like, that we’re not affected by what’s going on around us, by the bullets of hate and discord, but that doesn’t change the fact that human beings also have a type of special organ, similar to a fish’s lateral line, which detects violent “displacements” of what we generally consider to be the humanitarian norm. For a great many people, becoming invulnerable to such “displacements” would require something like the practice of substance abuse or the manifestation of psychopathy. As with fish, becoming invulnerable to our environment isn’t something we can do, naturally; but unlike fish, we can, nonetheless, examine, rethink, and reposition ourselves to better absorb “the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to” (that’s Shakespeare, baby). And this starts with learning to sever our connections to our superficial environments by following some of the last advice the Buddha ever gave: “Be an island unto yourself.” Yes, the Buddha significantly differed with John Donne’s pronouncement that “no man is an island”…

When our feelings of safety and security depend on other people’s acceptance, good will, dependability, or decency, we are destined to be forever in search of the same, and consistently disappointed. Unfortunately, and in reality, everything is in flux. The only thing that never changes is change, itself. And we must include people among those “things,” as in the Tao Te Ching’s “ten thousand things.” So, though we eventually get what we want or need, someone is always rude enough to die, have a nervous breakdown, move to another country, or simply change their mind. And often, situations which seem interminable (particularly in an unpleasant way) are just about to change, if only we can “stick it out.”

Not playing the game is a good start to personal freedom, but understanding the forces, or g-force(s), if you will, that are pressing against us on every side is the only way to truly gauge our position in the battle of wits that is daily life. It simply isn’t enough to pretend that we are above it all, especially when we are literally stuck in that most unnatural of places, “…a fish in a barrel.”

And it is exactly this kind of being ‘stuck’ that the Four Noble Truths address:

  1. There is suffering…
  2. There is a cause to that suffering…
  3. There is a remedy to that suffering…
  4. And the remedy is…

Namaste.
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Related Reading:

Obliterating A Fish In A Barrel: MythBusters (A YouTube demonstration)

Is Shooting Fish In A Barrel Easy? from MythBusters Database (brief text explanation)

And Oh, yeah… The Four Noble Truths from About.com/Buddhism

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