Like all newborn seal pups, Yupiit was gifted two hundred fish by the elder seals upon his birth. Rooted in thousands of years of generosity, the tradition helped the newborns stay fed while they navigated the world. It was a way for the community to welcome a pup’s new life to the world, protect them while they were vulnerable, and teach them the flavors of life they would soon seek for nourishment. Most of the time, a pup’s two hundred fish would last for the first three months of the seal’s life, ensuring that the seal had sustenance while learning the ways of the arctic environment before depending on their wits alone for survival.
The majority of pups saw the fish for the placeholder they were and quickly set to work learning the ways of the arctic waters. The subzero temperatures of the water barely penetrated their nascent blubber, which grew fatter by the day with the helpful aid of the mothers’ milk and the gifted fish. Though it was cold for a time, the moment the seals slid into the water they realized that the black abyss of the ocean was where their true forms came to life. They swam in circles and synchronized patterns, drew bubble trails with their speedy loops in the water, and used their flippers to propel them further into the unknown. The difficult thing about being a seal is being the intermission between Act I and Act II of evolutionary development. The water was a welcome relief from the existential confusion of perpetual awkwardness on the land. They played, they learned how to catch fish, they made mistakes, and they grew.
Except for Yupii. Other seals saw the gifted fish provisions as a hint of where they needed to go and expanded their worldview outward to pursue their future selves. But not all seals interpret the gift the same, since it is given without explanation or guidance. Yupiit, unable to fully understand the gift and meaning of his provision, saw his fish not as encouragement to learn the way of life but subtle condemnation of his perceived limitations. Instead of seeing the gift as a jumpstart, he saw it as a constant reminder of the threat of death. He told himself, This is all I will ever have so I must protect it, I must ration it, I must use it sparingly if at all. While the other pups ate their two hundred fish freely, Yupiit hoarded his. Over time, the fish supply of the other pups began to dwindle while Yupiit’s stayed essentially the same. One day, Yupiit had more fish than any of the other pups combined. The other pups envied him, and he saw their smiles not as genuine amazement of his seeming frugality, but manipulative looks, or mocking looks, or ignorant looks. In a world in which resources appear increasingly limited, it’s difficult to remember that very, very few people are ever true enemies.
The other pups’ envy, however was misguided; While their fish stock dwindled, they gained other skills in the water and on the land. They learned how to hunt, how to avoid bear dens, and how to conserve their energy to meet seasonal needs. They learned their powers as predators in the water and their weaknesses as prey on land. But because Yupiit was so convinced that he had to protect his fish instead of use it as a resource to move himself to a higher level of understanding and self-sufficiency, he didn’t get in the water once. An entire ocean of adventure and sustenance just steps away, and Yupiit was so scared to lose what he had that he never tried to learn the ways of life. He was certain he would never starve because he had dutifully protected his stock, but he had failed to understand that what he was given at birth were tools, not treasure. He saw what he was given at birth not as a start to a life of abundance, but a definitive statement of the innate scarcity and shadow of death permeating all things. Over time, he came to resent his treasure, especially once the other pups, their fish stock now empty, began bringing in fish themselves. Without skills, friends, or knowledge of the arctic waters, Yupiit now became a self-imposed prisoner. He couldn’t eat the fish because then he would starve. He couldn’t dive in the water because he didn’t know what to do. He couldn’t ask the other pups because he had long since alienated himself by treating them all like enemies, competition, or idiots. Yupiit didn’t interact with anyone and everyone left Yupiit to himself. He was alone.
Time moved on and Yupiit did not. He began to wither away, locked into his worldview, certain that to trust the rhythms of life and relationships was to risk total devastation. His youthful blubber thinned and thinned until one day he felt the cold of the arctic chill for the first time against his exposed skin. The wind seemed to sink into his flesh like water into a loose wetsuit, penetrating his thick layers, and he yelped out in surprise. The other pups, well on their way to becoming fully-grown seals, peeked their heads above the water where they were wrestling and fishing. They turned their heads in curiosity, not sure why Yupiit was crying out in such a way. Yupiit, having never truly felt the cold, felt like his body was on fire. He slammed his flippers up and down and up and down to try to shake it off, but it wouldn’t stop. It was a cold without end. In a desperate attempt to make it stop, Yupiit ran toward the edge of the ice. The pups perked up further above the water. Surely this is it, Yupiit told himself, this must be how my life ends. And I tried so hard to do it right! Yupiit ran faster and faster, closer and closer to the edge of water he had never touched. As he approached the edge of the ice, he tried to slow himself down but the ice was so slick he began to slide. The pups swam toward the edge, their wet bodies shimmering under the Arctic sun. Yupiit tried to stop by kicking his flippers as he approached the edge of the ice, and he stopped just before he fell over the edge.
A pup shouted to Yupiit.
Yupiit! What is wrong?
Yupiit flailed his flippers while he spoke. I feel everything! I’ve never felt these things before and now they hurt! Why do they hurt!
The pup, bobbing in the water calmly, spoke in a soft tone to Yupiit. Your blubber has worn down because you have not eaten or hunted or played with us. In overprotecting yourself you have actually hurt yourself. Why, Yupiit? Why have you done this to yourself?
Yupiit was crying now, tears streaming out of his wide black eyes. I don’t want to lose everything! I want to protect what I have and live! How can I protect what I have when you envy or mock or ridicule me behind my back? How can I trust?
The pup responded, Yupiit, we do not envy or mock you. We care for you. We want to get to know you. And how can you call what you protect the source of life when you have never even taken the time to learn how to reach that source on your own? You need to seek, Yupiit, but you do not seek. To only protect is to condemn yourself to a limited life.
Yupiit’s voice was barely audible as he spoke. Is it too late for me to try?
The pup stood erect now, looked around at the other pups, and they all nodded to one another. Yupiit, the pup said, look down.
Yupiit looked into the dark water for the first time in his life. The water was nearly black and completely still. He saw himself in the reflection. He stared down into himself, reflected back by the ocean of opportunity he had robbed himself of experiencing for far too long. He saw his flippers made for swimming, his whiskers made for measuring the width of cavernous spaces, his teeth meant for catching and eating fish, his skin meant for withstanding any temperature, his dark eyes meant for seeing in every environment imaginable. He saw how he had denied these parts of himself that were made for the water.
That’s me, Yupiit said.
Yes, the pup said. Come, friend. We will teach you. It’s not too late.
Yupiit took a deep breath and dove in. He cut like a knife through the water into the vast unknown.