BY DAVID S. LEWIS
Whatever you happen to be doing at this moment, give this a try—imagine, quite simply, a fish in water. A lake trout, say, swimming in deep water. You might even imagine yourself as this fish.
All he’s ever known is water. He starts out in water (as a tender tadpole, or however lake trout start out), barely alive or aware of what he is, and certainly unaware he’s in water. He just wiggles around in it all day, finding his way. Growing into a mature fish, a full-fledged lunker, all he knows still is water, water, water, and his life in it. And so he doesn’t even know he’s wet, even though water is the most prominent feature of his life and everywhere he looks.
Similarly, if you had never known wetness, never seen the sea or any body of water, would you know you are on dry land?
With nothing to which you could compare, the answer is—No, you would not know you are on dry land, as a fish does not know it is wet, because he has no other experience.
Bear with me, as we enter a seemingly unrelated realm, about which we learned again recently, as if we needed reminding—that it is a very strange realm indeed, so different from ours and not in a good way, where people are sent to extremely harsh prison camps for infractions such as accidentally letting the image of their Dear Leader on a newspaper fall to the floor: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (aka North Korea). And his image appears in the newspaper daily, so there are quite a few poor souls in these camps for not having properly minded their trash, and what’s more there’s no news in those newspapers except that which the government promotes (vague similarities arise in the U.S., our media now being so centrally orchestrated, as revealed in Sharyl Atkisson’s Stonewalled: My Fight for Truth Against the Forces of Obstruction, Intimidation, and Harassment in Obama’s Washington), although we have uncensored internet, of course, and alternative media of all kinds where people publish whatever they want.
Not that long ago, a unique young man named Shin Dong-hyuk escaped from a prison camp in the infamous DPRK. Shin, though, was not imprisoned because he let the Dear Leader’s image fall to the floor. He had not, in fact, done anything wrong at all. Instead, he was born in that camp as a result of the DPRK’s policy of imprisoning “wrong doers” for three generations to be sure their blood line is thoroughly purified, or expunged.
To get Shin’s full story read Escape from Camp 14, One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West by Blaine Harden. Through Shin’s account, we learn a great deal about conditioning of the human self, as practised in North Korea (and in the sense that we are all fish swimming in water).
(Nothing to Envy, Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick, and The Aquariums of Pyongyang, Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag, provide corroborative accounts.)
Shin, while in the North Korean camp, knew nothing more about reality than what he had absorbed from the bizarre and tortured experiences forced upon him by the North Korean government’s evil guards, his overseers at the camp. I mean nothing. He did not know human warmth, compassion, or family life—love for a mother, loyalty to a brother, even though he had family in the camp, because the camp requirement (even for children) was to inform on anybody, anybody, if they broke the rules. The camp’s guards, what’s more, supplanted the normal roles of parental figures and more forcefully than any biological parents Shin actually had. And so, in the end, he informed on his mother, as she plotted an escape attempt on behalf of Shin’s older brother.
Shin informed on her, and not only that, his testimony led to her execution, which Shin attended (as required of the entire camp) without shedding a tear because he believed she deserved her punishment.
Shin found motivation to escape the camp not because of this unimaginable event, but for having been tortured, and then through an older cell mate who told him about life outside and the varieties of food he might enjoy, a world that to Shin sounded like a fantastic theme park. Before that, Shin did not know there was a different kind of life. All he knew was the camp, a sprawling landscape enclosed by electric fence, where a child could be beaten unconscious for crimes such as hoarding a few grains of rice in the pocket of a tattered garment.
Shin was a fish in water. All he knew was the pond in which he swam, until the older man, who had lived in China and tasted so many varied experiences of life, opened his mind. In that food was the most prized commodity in the camp, it was tales of food from the older man that most inspired Shin to escape.
Making his way to China, then South Korea, and finally the U.S., Shin adapted but struggled within as he observed qualities of compassion, conscience, and family warmth that he found among South Koreans and Americans. He had, after all, caused the execution of his own mother, and only learned this was wrong after he compared notes on the outside.
This unique young man provides an object lesson, as it were, for the human mind. Essentially, he is just like us—only his experiences differ. Like a fish in water, he knew nothing of life on land.
You might correctly say that we are not fish, not born and raised in the aquarium that is North Korea. Our opportunities and freedoms are infinitely greater. But we are all born somewhere, and swim in a pond of some kind. And we do not know what exists beyond, or even the nature of our pond, because our pond is what we know and conceals what we do not.
And as fish out of water, the ego we are conditioned to have struggles and gasps once hurled upon the shore of the unknown. Unlike fish though, we adapt, breathe, cross frontiers and experience new realities as pioneers.
Not before recognizing, though, that we don’t know what we don’t know, and that holding only to what we do know impedes our advance.
We think we know a lot these days, know-it-alls abound, but the point is that we certainly know but a tiny fraction of what there is to know or experience in the totality—under and beyond the Big Sky.
Breeds a sense of youthfulness, and humility.