I had promised to post more of my students’ essays on Michael, but lately I have been too overwhelmed with work to keep even that relatively simple promise. However, with the spring semester (finally!) winding down, I should be “back in the saddle” with lots more posts to bring you.
Of course, this semester has brought an even more varied and interesting batch of student essays on those works by Michael that I routinely cover, “Black or White” and “Earth Song.” But last semester, one student in particular, Jordan Hopkins, was intrigued enough to carry her research of Michael Jackson’s work beyond those two songs. In the course of discussing “Earth Song,” I mentioned Michael’s book Dancing the Dream and we looked at some of those poems. Jordan discovered Michael’s fable “The Fish That Was Thirsty” on her own, and decided to write on it as her final project for the course. I was very moved by her decision to pursue Michael’s spiritual work further, when she could have written on anything she wanted for this project-including, perhaps, something more familiar or current. But Michael’s work, she said, had a profound impact on her and had made her curious to learn more about his work.
Here is Jordan’s essay on “The Fish That Was Thirsty:
The Fish that was Thirsty
(Analysis by Jordan Hopkins)
For many years preceding his death on June 25, 2009, Michael Jackson was the subject of much scrutiny and controversy. His nonconformist attitude and edgy music put him in the spotlight, and more often than not, the attention he received was negative. Many people honed on his eccentric nature and unconventional antics and labeled him disturbed or odd, unwilling to understand or look past the surface. Michael was, however, different from most. He had an almost child-like innocence about him that many people could not relate to or understand. Through his lyrics, his literary works, and his expression of his own spirituality, it is clear that MJ saw the world with a keen eye. His gift for abstract thought and philosophy is widely unrecognized, and it is truly a shame. One of his short stories, “The Fish that was Thirsty,” left me dumbfounded upon first reading it. This simple story is a prime example of Michael Jackson’s raw talent to symbolically demonstrate incredibly profound concepts such as religion and spirituality in an incredibly simple package. I believe this story is more than just a broad generalization of religion, but it is, in fact, a metaphor for his very own personal quest for spirituality.
Michael Jackson grew up in a strict Jehovah’s Witness family. Throughout early childhood and even into his career, Jackson embraced the religion, often partaking in door-to-door proselytizing, as is common practice for this religion. However, in 1987, Jackson voluntarily left the church after facing much scrutiny for his dealings in the entertainment industry, much of which is considered unsavory to the witnesses. This act of rebellion spurred a flurry of emotions from Jackson that I believe are well represented in, “The Fish that was Thirsty.” The story begins with a little fish that has an unexpected visitor in his dream: God. In the dream, God says to the fish, “I want you to go forth with a message to all the fish in the sea.” When the fish asks what he should tell them, God replies, “Just tell them you’re thirsty.” I believe this passage is representative of Jackson’s quest for his own spiritual path and his feelings regarding his rootless existence upon leaving the religious congregation he had known his entire life. Understandably, Jackson felt the need for a relationship with God, but at first did not know how without the structure and order he was so accustomed to with the Jehovah’s Witness faith. So he went stumbling alone into uncharted territories to toward his own personal enlightenment.
The little fish goes on to deliver his message to a tuna, a shark, and an array of other sea creatures, feeling more and more foolish with every exchange. Each ocean inhabitant he encountered turned their back on him, calling him a fool and crazy. With this part of the story, Jackson represents the reception he received from church members and other religious acquaintances after severing his relationship with the congregation. These people were disapproving of his lifestyle, his career choices, and certainly, his choice to stray from such a tight-knit congregation. Needless to say, his relationship with the church and its members was strained after cutting all ties.
Finally, the little fish, feeling hopeless and confused, seeks out the audience of the wisest creature in the sea, an old blue whale with three harpoons jutting from its side. Upon hearing his message, the wise whale knows that the fish has been visited by God. The fish asks about the meaning of the message from God, and the whale replies, “It means that we are looking for Him in the wrong places,” the old whale explained, “We look high and low for God, but somehow He’s not there. So we blame Him and tell ourselves that He must have forgotten us. Or else we decide that He left a long time ago, if He was ever around.” “How strange,” the little fish says, “to miss what is everywhere.” The story comes to a close as the old whale replies, “Doesn’t it remind you of fish who say they’re thirsty?” The fish and his mission to quench his thirst in a huge ocean full of water is representative of Jackson’s spiritual epiphany. He finally realized that God does not need to be sought out, for he is all around us, encompassing every part of our lives. All we must do is open our eyes and acknowledge his presence.
Whether you are a fan or a critic, Jackson’s genius here is indisputable. In the short story, “The Fish that was Thirsty,” he profoundly demonstrates the concept of God and religion, all while giving us a glimpse into his own spiritual journey. Jackson’s capacity for higher order thinking and his ability to translate such thoughts into such a simplistic and eloquently written story are astounding, which is one of the many reasons why he will be remembered for many years to come.