Fishers are compulsive storytellers. Maybe it is because they have spent so many hours for just a few minutes of excitement and this is their way of justifying this profligate expenditure of time. In my experience, it just feels selfish to keep a miraculous experience to oneself. One wants to spread the joy.
In fishing as in life, one learns that getting the right results comes after careful preparation, knowledge, skill, planning have done all they can do. Then something extra kicks in, something like grace, that allows magic to happen. The paradox is that when that magic happens, it suddenly occurs to us that it wasn’t at all ours to demand or expect. It was merely a gift. And if catching a fish is a gift, then so too is catching the light as it strikes the water in the late afternoon, streaming as it does through the tall pines and casting your shadow upstream while the flies flit about above the surface of the water. It is then that you find yourself transfixed just by the very odd chance of being alive at all. Good fishers are grateful people, people who in the end have to admit that it doesn’t even matter if you catch something, so long as you, in all of your readiness, were able to enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of a mountain stream. Because, no matter your level of expertise, only the fish and the river in the end will determine whether you get results. As it says in Ecclesiastes, “the race is not to the swift, but time and chance happeneth to them all.” Of course without the preparation, chances are nil, but with it, you still know you are a beggar. And all you got was nothing more than time and chance, nothing more and nothing less.
The point is that deeply spiritually gratifying moments are available to us everyday regardless of our current life circumstances. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be about the business of readying ourselves for life’s bounty, working and preparing and positioning ourselves for favorable circumstances. We must retain our spiritual focus. But we can’t allow ourselves to be seduced by the illusion that we alone determine our chances for joy. If joy were only what we earned the right to feel, it wouldn’t be joy at all. It would be more like getting a paycheck, rather than getting a Christmas package. What we hunger for is a present, that strange and awesome and humbling feeling that we have inexplicably been chosen for the off chance of witnessing a miracle.
I have spent far more hours in preparation for a fish than I have enjoyed battling one on the line. There are the long drawn out hours of standing in the middle of a cold, hard wind, waiting for the rain to stop, disentangling my line from a willow branch overhanging the water, retying my line after it snagged under water. The expense of it all. The time driving to the right location. The thousands upon thousands of empty casts when you caught nothing but air. Let’s admit it: the story of fishing is as dull as wax. What makes it an experience worth recounting is precisely the way in which routine is suddenly caught up in a rapture of surprise. We should cast empty as if each cast will catch a fish until we do. Brigham Young once said about prayer: “It matters not whether you or I feel like praying…. If we do not feel like it, we should pray until we do.” We should love whether we feel like loving or not. We should express gratitude and courtesy and kindness even when we don’t feel these things inside. Only in a habit of right doing do we stand the best chance of right feeling. Real love might not come right when we need it, but when it does, we won’t let it go easily or treat it shabbily. We will hold it reverently in our hands like a living, breathing thing and think to ourselves, “Thank God for this rare and beautiful chance that I so hoped would be mine.”
The secret of living happily isn’t just a matter of how we feel or what happens to us, because we are going to have our ups and downs, days when it just doesn’t come together, days when the hours feel like weeks and the repetition of our routines numbs the mind and heart. But you keep casting and keep hoping for chances. And chances are that when those patterns of the cast are in place, you will find yourself finding greater and greater satisfaction in the process because you are beginning to realize that you are slowly and steadily choosing and shaping the life you lead. David O MacKay once said that “spirituality is the consciousness of victory over self.” Joy is the pleasure of realizing that little by little you are wresting life away from the grasp of circumstances beyond your control.
When someone of high standards loves us and gives generously to us even when we disappoint them, their love affects change in us. The opposite, of course, is the case with conditional love. We resent it because we begin to suspect that what is loved is something other than ourselves, some idea, or perhaps it becomes obvious to us that conditional love is nothing more than love of oneself. And so we only wish to confirm conditional lovers in their view, hurt them back with our own form of selfishness. Unconditional love is the central Christian message about life. It is the Christmas present. It is worth all the attention, effort, and discipline we can muster to keep the hope of its reality alive. And when the flame of real joy burns hotly, we will know we didn’t deserve it. This won’t disappoint us; it will be the best reason to spread it broadly.