Bailing Water from a Sunken Ship: A Parable

Posted on 6 August 2005


Two little fish friends are swimming in the ocean and find a sunken shipwreck. As creative and imaginative young fish tend to do, they start playing in the ship, imagining that it is floating above water, that they are sailing on great adventures, encountering pirates and storms, taking this ship on a great journey across the ocean in search of a lost treasure on a distant island paradise. Eventually, though, their imaginations get a bit carried away. They get so engrossed in this fantasy that they forget they are only imagining it all…

These two little fish now think they are really afloat above water, really searching for a real treasure. The way they see it, they are on a real journey across the surface of a vast ocean to an island paradise. They have real struggles with storms and pirates along the way. Then one day they notice the presence of water here and there on the ship, and this makes them very worried that the ship is leaking and might sink. They imagine there must be a big hole in the bottom of the ship and become very fearful. So they desperately start bailing water to keep the ship afloat. This becomes part of their adventure, of course, as they bail not only to keep afloat but also to stay afloat long enough to find that treasure, and that distant paradise island where they can finally rest. They become quite worried, though, that they’ll never make it. In fact, it seems they may not make it to any dry land.

Then one day an older, wiser fish swims by and sees these two little fish desperately bailing water out of the sunken ship. As they bail the water, they beg the older fish, “Please help us bail! Help keep our ship afloat so it doesn’t sink!” The older fish laughs and tells them, “You silly young fish! Your ship is not afloat. It has already sunk.” The two little fish take great offense at this ridiculous comment. “Not only are you a crazy old fish,” they tell him, “but you are very cruel as well for not helping us as we face this life-threatening situation.” The older fish then understands and responds, “I’m sorry. I didn’t see the seriousness of your problem! I’ll try to help you.” The two little fish are then very relieved to hear that they will get some help. He might be a bit crazy, but now they think this old fish will help them. This restores their hopes that they will not sink, that they will reach the island paradise across the ocean and find the treasure.

“So,” the older fish asks them, “have you found the source of the leak in your ship? Do you know where all this water is coming from that you’re so busy bailing?” One of the little fish answers, “Well, it’s obviously coming from a big hole in the bottom of the ship.” The older fish then asks, “So, have you seen this hole? How big is it?” The two fish look at each other. “No,” one of them confesses. “We’ve been too busy bailing water to look,” the other explains. The two fish continue to bail the water and start getting a bit frustrated with this old fish. “Hey, I thought you said you’d help us,” one little fish complains, “but all you’re doing is asking questions. “Yah,” the other little fish adds, “Why don’t you do something really helpful and bail some water?”

“But perhaps if you found the hole in your ship,” the old fish explains, “then you could repair it and you wouldn’t have to work so hard bailing water. With the hole repaired, you’d have a much better chance of reaching your paradise island and finding your treasure.” The two little fish think this over, and it makes some sense. But they still have some doubts, and are very worried about the water that keeps leaking in the ship. If they stop bailing to look for the hole, they might not find it in time and the ship will sink. Then again, if they can fix the hole, it would be great. “How about this,” one of them finally says to the old fish, “Since it’s your idea, why don’t you go look for the hole and fix it while we continue to bail?” “I have a better idea,” the old fish replies, “You know your way around your own ship, while I don’t know it at all and might get lost. Why don’t I stay here and help bail while one of you goes to look for the hole?” The older fish then picks up a bucket and starts bailing.

With some ambivalence, one of the little fish stops bailing and goes looking for the hole in the ship. But when he stops bailing to go down below deck to look, he finds water starts gushing everywhere. Frightened, he starts bailing frantically again and quickly becomes exhausted. “Did you find the hole?” the old fish asks him. “No,” the little fish gasped, “The moment I stopped my bailing, all this water started pouring in from every direction. I was too busy bailing it all to look anywhere.” The old fish looks at him and reminds him, “Our agreement was that I would bail and you would look for the hole in the ship. Why don’t you go look again. See this time if you can resist the temptation to start bailing when you notice the water. That way, maybe you can look for the hole without all that bailing obstructing your ability to look.” So the little fish again stops bailing and starts looking for the hole. Again, he gets scared and starts bailing. Again, he gets exhausted. He tries again, and again finds himself bailing water. But after repeated attempts and a lot of frustration, he finds that he eventually becomes less frightened of all the water and can actually start looking more and more for the hole. He is finally making progress! In fact, after time, he starts to enjoy the water a bit. It is kind of fun for him to swim around in it. And it is relaxing to have a break from that exhausting bailing!

“I can stay down there a long time now,” the little fish reports to the older fish with no small bit of pride. “Well,” the older fish says, “That’s fine. But remember our agreement was that you were going to look for the hole in the ship. How is the search coming along? Have you found the hole yet?” Remembering the agreement, the little fish’s excitement dissipates for a moment. “No, but I’ve been learning all sorts of things about swimming in the flooded parts of the ship below deck.” The older fish then askes him, “So, are you still worried about the ship sinking?” After a moment of self-reflection, the little fish confesses, “Yes.” “Okay,” the older fish says, “Then go find the hole and fix it!” So the little fish goes off in search of the hole. He searches and searches, but can’t find it. He keeps going back, over and over. He looks in the engine room, in the boiler room, in the cargo hold, in the crew quarters. He searches and searches until he searches the entire ship. Finally, he comes back quite frustrated. “I can’t find the hole anywhere!” he vents to the older fish. “Go look again,” the older fish calmly advises him, “perhaps you missed it somewhere.” So, with great determination, the little fish goes off to find that hole, once and for all. Again, he searches every corner, every crook and cranny of that ship. Nowhere, though, can he find any hole. Now he starts becoming very perplexed. Why couldn’t he find the hole? Where could it be? There must be a hole because there’s all this water. But I couldn’t find a hole anywhere for it to come in through. Totally bewildered, he tells the older fish, “I’m sorry, I’ve failed. I looked everywhere and I didn’t find any hole in the ship. I have no idea where all the water is coming from. To make matters worse, there’s so much more water in the ship than I ever saw before. It seems to be everywhere, but has no source. I’m at a totally loss what to do. There’s no point in bailing anymore since no amount of bailing can possibly keep all this water out and prevent the ship from sinking. We’ll never reach the paradise island and find our treasure.”

The older fish then turns to the little fish and asks one simple question, “Tell me, my little friend, as you look around this ship right now, do you see any place that is not already completely flooded with water?” At that point, the little fish looks and suddenly sees the truth that had always been there, but only forgotten: The ship is, and always has been completely submerged! It cannot sink because it is not floating above water in the first place! There is not really any paradise island, no treasure, no ocean to cross, no need to bail. He remembers now, that it was all just a game he was playing. “Hey, old fish,” the little fish exclaims, “Why didn’t you tell me this in the first place?” The old fish laughs, “I did tell you. Remember? You didn’t believe me. So, you had to find out for yourself.” With gratitude, the little fish hugs the older fish and asks, “What can I do to repay you for helping me wake up from that nightmare?” The older fish directed his attention over to the other little fish, who was still desperately bailing water. “You can go help out your little friend over there,” the old fish replied, “it looks like he’s trying to keep this sunken ship from sinking!”