The Round Table

Fred Smith

Fred Smith


March 13, 2024

Heavy Fish and Light Lines

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The first of two times I went fishing with my father I was nine years old and we were staying for two nights in Camden, Maine. It was handline fishing from a boat rocking in a small storm on a cold day. Everyone was sick and all I remember is the repeated advice, “You’ve hooked him, now yank him!”  

Even though I’ve only been fishing once since then, I’ve read several books on fly-fishing and consider it an art. One of the best books I’ve read is by Howell Raines titled “Fly Fishing Through The Midlife Crisis.” Raines describes the difference between “hook ‘em and yank ‘em” and the subtlety of fly fishing after hooking a large trout in a stream:

That is how I came to understand the relationship between heavy fish and light lines. The act of setting the hook must contain within it an almost simultaneous act of surrender. Upon seeing or feeling the strike, the fly fisherman is required to pull back with precisely enough force to slide the point of the hook into the tissue of the fish’s mouth. Then he must release all the pressure and let the fish go where it wants to go. It is an act of physical discipline and of hope – the hope being that by and by when the fish is tired of going where it wants to go, it and the fisherman will still be connected by a thread that leads them to the same place.”

There is probably no better example of this than Jesus on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection. Jesus had told the disciples that he would meet them in Galilee - to the north of Jerusalem. Why were these two on the road to Emmaus - to the west of Jerusalem? They were full of good questions, open to discussion and intent on understanding but intentionally headed in the wrong direction.

Had I been coaching Jesus, I might have advised him to say, "You are headed in the wrong direction. Turn around. Listen to what I am telling you." But he doesn't. He walks with them in the wrong direction while explaining things as they go. It's difficult to do that when you want people to make right choices. After all, the point was to get them headed back to Jerusalem. 

Here's the part that has helped me as much as anything else. It is at the end of the day when they sit down to eat together that their eyes are opened and they realize who he is. Over time, this has been my experience as well. It is not the irresistible facts or the logic that works with people headed in the wrong direction. Their eyes - and sometimes mine - are opened when I give up my desire for them to do what is clearly (according to me) best for them. It is at "the end of the day" when we sit with each other with no agenda or prescriptions when real progress is made. After all, when they reflected later on the experience they did not say, “Were not our intellects burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” No, it was their hearts that burned within them.

It's not fast and it's not natural for the impatient. I would much rather tell them what to do. There are many times when people disregard my counsel and experience to keep going in what I would say is the wrong direction. But over the years a few, like the two on the road, turn themselves around and head back in the right direction. At the end of the day they are on their way to the right place and that is one of the great satisfactions of this work. 

I’ve thought about this many times and in many situations with people when I find myself in a tug-of-war. I can either “hook ‘em and yank ‘em” to get them to do what I want or I can take the risk and practice the discipline and the hope of staying connected by a thread that leads us to the same place. It doesn’t always work because people are not trout and I’m no fisherman. Still, over time in my life I have discovered staying connected by that thin line is a far better way to live. 

Art by William Aiken Walker

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