My son tells me goldfish have a memory of three seconds. I wonder how we know that. The upside of the condition is, of course, that a goldfish can enjoy the same joke over and over again-if goldfish tell jokes, or at least do sight gags. And this new knowledge about the diminutive water wigglers relieves the distress I felt over their bleak environment; the next curve on the fishbowl, or leafy plastic frond, is always a surprise to them.
It should not be so with bipeds, with us upon whom is the honor of being "a little lower than the heavenly beings" (Psalm 8:5) and entrusted with the drama of the ages "into which angels long to look" (1 Peter 1:12).
I taught on Jonah for the women's church retreat. A different kettle of fish, the other end of scale for size, and with a better mission than your household pet-to quarantine the wayward prophet in the belly of the beast until such time as memory returned to him.
Memory, you ask? That's what I told them, what I found in my reflections. At first he saw only that "the flood surrounded" him, the "waves and billows" passed over him, the "weeds were wrapped" about his head, the "bars closed upon" him (Jonah 2:3-6). He attended to appearances, and appearances told him he was doomed.
Then memory was quickened in verse 4 of chapter 2. We have the exact moment, Jonah's record of the quickening: a memory of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Why the Temple? Because Jonah knew that somehow in the Temple was his only hope, the place where sin is taken seriously, and where mysterious exchange is made-blood for blood-that sets men free. He would cast his fate upon the mercy seat.
As soon as the lesson was learned, the prophet was disgorged upon dry land.
The book of Jonah should have ended at verse 10 of chapter 3. Or with the lovely postscript that the son of Amittai went on his way rejoicing. But if Jonah were a movie, it would be one by Louis Malle, not Frank Capra. A friend of mine who teaches the Old Testament informed me that in synagogues, when the minor prophet is read aloud on Yom Kippur, so great is the displeasure at its denouement that Micah 7:18-19 is tacked on the end to make it fit our sensibilities.
Screwtape is more clear-eyed about human nature when he says: "Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation-the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back" (The Screwtape Letters, C.S.Lewis). We undulate because we live in time (unlike our brothers on the other side), and time is but separate moments strung together, separate choices of what we will attend to. How could Jonah sing the psalm in chapter 2 and then pronounce the vilest words of Holy Writ in chapter 4? The answer is so simple it's embarrassing: The man forgot.
Amnesia is more than a goldfish problem: We look into the mirror and see, and then immediately forget (James 1:24). We keep getting mercy and then forget (Psalm 78: 7, 35, 42). In suffering, we forget we are sons (Hebrews 12:5). Pharaoh, the human goldfish, forgets each plague the second it is past. Jesus' apostles aren't much better: "Do you not remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up? . . . And the seven for the four thousand, how many baskets full of broken pieces did you take up?" (Mark 8:18-20). The book of Hebrews speaks of undulation when it warns us to exhort each other lest today we lose what we knew only yesterday (3:12-14).
I sink into the mire where the seaweed swirls, the waves and billows rage, the bars of earth enclose. It happens many times a day. I fixate on appearances-my age, my weakness, my failures, my losses-and appearances tell me I am doomed. Then suddenly there comes a quickening. Out of the blue I pronounce under my breath, "I'll trust in His unfailing love." I say it 50 times a day if once. The funny thing is that it always takes me by surprise, as if I've come upon it only now for the first time.
Goldfish, you know.