When you’re diving or snorkeling on the west coast of Sweden, stinging jellyfish are always on your mind. Some years, they’re not so common, and other years they’re everywhere. Once we were ascending from about 20 meters underwater and suddenly found ourselves in a school of jellyfish. It’s a beautiful experience. But also frightening. Jellyfish have a way of just hanging there, resigned to their fate. The sun shines right through them and their tentacles follow the motion of the water. You shouldn’t start waving about, because then you’ll be sure to have tentacles everywhere. And they hurt. So in the end there was nothing for us to do but go straight up. And hope that there weren’t any above us. And if we had begun to twist around just to take a better look, we probably would have created whirls that would drag the tentacles towards us.
Together with cockroaches, amoebas and crocodiles, jellyfish are something like the crowning point of evolution. Completely developed and optimized a long time ago. And they seem to be resistant to everything. Even when sensitive coral reefs die, ecosystems collapse, and vulnerable species like pandas, people and koalas see their existence threatened. They just drift along beneath the surface. Adapting and surviving. Coping with acidification and increasing their numbers. Drifting along with the current, swimming a little up, and a little down. Once in a while stinging something. And then they get to eat.
In moments of sorrow, melancholy or despair I have identified with jellyfish. Feeling that I’m not the master of my own life. Things just happen. I manage to swim a little up. And then a little down. Hope I don’t get washed up on a beach. And as things happen, I manage to sting someone with that mass of tentacles that are just hanging there, right under me. But I survive. Mostly.
The feeling becomes more human when I look at how hyperindividualism is spreading, along with our social constructions and our fragile self-images. We have created such a strong narrative that we control our environment, so that we really believe that we are the queens and kings of our spiritual lives and our infinitely complex bodies. And when anything goes wrong, we have ourselves to blame. Because however secure and well nourished we are, there is always plentiful anxiety and the feeling of inadequacy. You could have done it better. Vanity and egocentricity in this perspective are anesthetizing and probably rather damaging for many of us. The irony is that our crowning achievement, human intelligence, is so intricate that it can create self-images, souls, consciousness, ambitions and bucket lists – but it is still so primal and instinct-driven that we feel threatened and anxious, despite living in the most secure environment in the history of mankind.
It has become popular to refer to stoicism in this age of individualism. That it’s better to accept the rigors of life. Arm yourself as well as you can. But resistance will probably only make matters worse.
I don’t know if I would fully agree with this stoic insight. But it’s probably the case that we don’t have any control at all over most things that affect our lives. So we just have to grin and bear it. Swim a little up, swim a little down. Accept the fact that we occasionally sting someone, and that there’s a risk that we get washed up on a beach. But in the grand scheme of things, it’s the ocean currents that dictate the direction of our existence.
That’s what I think about when I find myself face to face with one of these prehistoric animals. Right there under the surface, beside a cliff. They just hang there in the water and make their rhythmic, pulsating movements. They are capable of both appearing and disappearing surprisingly quickly, and of course I’m guilty of gross anthropomorphism when I claim I can see a jellyfish’s loneliness. But as a projection screen for both spiritual life and society, I think that these Portuguese men-o’-war, medusas and their buddies do an excellent job when they’re drifting around in the deep. Stinging other animals and pulsating. Occasionally one will be washed up on shore, but mostly they just survive.