When Fish Look Back


We enjoy watching at fish in an aquarium. We enjoy watching them in friend’s homes, at pet stores, and zoos. Some of us enjoy looking at fish so much that we decide to purchase some of our own, so we can look at them every day in the comfy confines of our own home. Some of us enjoy looking at fish, because it gives us a sense of superiority that can be difficult to explain. We might enjoy seeing another being trapped by glass, because it makes us feel freer by comparison. Both parties know we are the superior being, but some fish look back, and some of those looks evolve into stares, challenging stares.

We don’t expect fish to look back, but some of the times they do, and some of the times it’s cute. Sometimes, we tap on the glass to try to get one fish to give us one quick look to acknowledge us in some quick, meaningless way. They usually swim away in quick, jetting motions, but some of the times they look back. “Look at this, Myrtle, he’s looking back at me!” we say to their casual, happenstance glance they offer us. When that casual glance holds, and that cute, little look back becomes a stare, it can feel unnatural. Even though it feels a little odd at the outset, we stare back. We don’t have any reason for continuing to stare back, but we do, until we achieve some inexplicable and unnerving connection. If this odd connection continues, we think that they’re testing the boundaries and borders nature inflicted upon them, regarding our respective roles in the food chain. We know it’s foolish to assign human characteristics to such a brainless creature, but the otherwise enjoyable stare leads us to question that which we’ve never considered before.

Our first instinct is to believe the fish just happens to be looking in the general direction we’re standing in, and that it’s nothing more than a happenstance glance. Something about this particular stare unnerves us though. We remind ourselves that they have no eyelids. They might have a membrane to protect their eyes from water, but they have no eyelids, so they cannot blink. They have pupil, and they can move their eyes, but this particular fish doesn’t even move his pupil. It’s staring right at us and through us. What does it think it’s seeing? Is it really looking at us, or just toward us? We make a jutting motion toward the fish to establish the fact, in our minds, that it is indeed staring at us. Another, relatively embarrassing component of that motion involves our need to establish dominance, so the fish doesn’t forget what we can do to them if driven to act. The fish will react to our jutting motion, but what happens in our interiority if after the fish flinches, it assumes its former position and resumes staring? Do we complain to the management of the pet store? What if the fish stopped staring the moment we brought the manager over to the tank and it resumed staring after the manager left? It looks at us, as if it thinks it knows us, and it’s unafraid. There are times when it’s okay to remind other creatures that we’re their superiors, and there are times when we consider this necessary. What if I reached into your tank, grabbed you, and did awful things to you? we think its way. It’s unmoved by that threat. We know we can’t do such things, no matter how long this thing looks at us. We know those looks that the other patrons of the pet store might give us. We also know what we would go through at home, in bed, staring up at the ceiling, remembering what a fish drove us to do. We know they wouldn’t understand, and something about that fish’s stare suggests that it knows that. At some point in this staring contest, it strikes us that the hundreds of thousands of years of our respective conditioning that have informed both parties who is superior mean nothing to this fish. Its stare suggests that it is challenging that conditioning, because it knows there’s nothing we can do about it.   

Pet psychologists tell us that if we own a dog who is particularly disorderly and disobedient that one of the ways to reestablish dominance is to engage it in a staring contest. If confronted by a wild animal, they tell us, the worst thing we can do is look that animal in the eye, because both parties know, on some primal level, that we’re challenging their nature, and any hint of this challenge enrages such beasts.

If we try to engage in a staring contest with a lion, in the lion’s den at the zoo, most lions won’t even bother looking back at us. They have hundreds of people confidently challenging them in this way every day. What happens when they look back? What happens to us when we look at a fish, and it looks back? What happens when that fish stares at us? Is it happenstance, or is the fish challenging our nature? Are we so confident in our stature that we stare back? How long do we participate in this staring contest, to establish our superiority, and what happens if we lose?

What happens the next time we near a fish tank after such a devastating loss? More often than not, we don’t invest ourselves into moments like these, but there are days when we’re feeling particularly vulnerable. There are days that affect us so much that the next time a friend invites us to look at their fish in the fish tank they have in their home, we hesitate. We know that if we begin shrieking, the fish wins. Our reputation would not only suffer at the hands of our host, but the ten people interested in her retelling of the story. Offering our host, a simple, “No thank you,” might open a big bag of questions that we don’t want to answer. Yet, acquiescing to their request might bring us right back to that day at the pet store when a fish’s stare served to undermine our confidence. When we glance over at our friend’s tank, considering her proposal, we see those probing eyes, and we remember the day when we thought we knew our place in the animal kingdom. We remember how confident we were in our respective roles in the animal kingdom before that staring contest, and though we know we can’t put all the blame for our insecurities at the fins of that fish in the pet store, its rebellious stare unearthed something in us that we never confronted before. We know how revealing it is to have a staring fish lead us to such existential questions, but it shook our confidence down to its foundation, and we politely refused our host’s request, fearing what another loss might do to our confidence.