A sea lion turns down the tide
A sea lion briefly escaped (archive) from the Central Park zoo when Manhattan flooded today. It was almost like Madagascar—almost—except that after swimming out of her pool, the sea lion explored the enclosure, and then swam right back home to be with her two sea-lion companions.
When I think about this incident, I think about the motif of water and opportunity. Take Toni Morrison’s Beloved, when a flood gives Paul D the chance to escape. Or take Shakespeare’s Brutus, who speaks metaphorically about a “tide” in the affairs of men. A rising tide lifts all boats—at least, all boats that accept the lift.
But what about those, like the sea lion, who turn down the lift? You could say that’s more sea-sheep behavior than sea-lion behavior, but… I’m not so sure. Three years into graduate school, I might even call her an iconoclast. In a career that imposes an almost unbearable pressure to capitalize on every passing opportunity, and in a field that admires hunger and rewards ambition, I think it takes extraordinary strength to let yourself be content with where you are: to define yourself not only by what you say “yes” to, but also by what you say “no” to.
Turning down an opportunity can feel and sound like being lazy, weak, cowardly—we have a lot of loaded vocabularly here—but as long as you have done your due diligence, I think it can also be a sign of wisdom, self-knowledge, and resolve. I’m thinking of the English lyrics to “No More Blues” (“If travel beckons me, I swear I’m gonna refuse”): I used to read them as a kind of burned-out weariness, but now I read them as a celebration of the moment when you recognize you already have what you are looking for. If anything, I think it takes courage not to pursue opportunities just because they happen to present themselves: confidence that you are already on the right path, confidence that more—better—opportunities will come along in the future.