I always enjoyed aquariums. Even as an adult, I still enjoy the exhibits that allow you to interact with some of the creatures — usually sting rays, starfish, and small sharks. At the latest aquarium I visited, however, I had the opportunity to interact with a sea anemone.
At first, I was excited. Wow! Another creature to interact with! But soon after, I felt some anxiety about how exactly I’d interact with the sea anemone. Do I touch the small waving arms? Or do I gently caress the trunk and body of the anemone? I eventually asked the staff monitoring the area, “How do I approach this?”
She explained to me that I can interact with any part of the sea anemone, and “If you put your finger in between the tentacles, they will give you a hug!”
A hug?? I was astounded. Instead of questioning how that was possible, I slowly submerged my hand into the cold depths of the aquarium display and approached the sea anemone. I placed my finger between a slew of tentacles and the sea anemone did, indeed, embrace and “hug” my fingers!
As I interacted with different sea anemones — red ones, orange ones, purple ones — I experienced the same soft hug. Sea anemones are so cute! But yet, an unsettling feeling came over me. Are they actually hugging my finger?
I recalled a separate exhibit we observed, where the aquatic creatures were being fed pieces of shrimp. My partner and I watched as the shrimp pieces fell and moray eels came out of their hiding spots to chomp on the shrimp. Behind this scene of fish feasting on the shrimp, however, one may fail to notice what is going on in the background.
Some shrimp landed on the sea anemones. I watched as the sea anemone slowly hugged the shrimp — the same way it did for my finger — and then absorbed the shrimp deeper into its forest of tentacles. There’s no doubt that the sea anemone was not hugging the shrimp: it was eating it.
This made me wonder what would’ve happened if I did not pull my finger away from the sea anemone. Surely, something that could harm visitors would not be on display for everyone to touch. But I am only touching the sea anemone for a fleeting moment. On top of that, I am most likely more powerful than the sea anemone and I have the power to pull away, unlike the falling shrimp during feeding time.
I share this story not only because of my admiration for the sea anemone as a creature, but also because I have recently realized how the sea anemone can act as a metaphor for individuals we may encounter in our lifetimes.
Since young, I have continuously criticized my mom for her inability to leave stressful and threatening situations. If someone is not treating you well, leave them! You deserve to be treated well. If you are being emotionally abused by someone, leave! Walk away! You deserve to be happy! I could not understand why my mom would continuously put up with emotional abuse and things that upset her, and how she would withstand things to maintain peace at the expense of her own wellbeing and happiness.
“It’s my fate,” she would say. “I owe him a debt and I have to put up with this to repay my debt.”
“Though our culture may have the norm of women withstanding verbal abuse from patriarchal men, we are living in different times now,” I would tell my mom. “You don’t have to put up with this anymore. Please do what makes you happy.”
But regardless of me encouraging my mom to stand up for herself, she still continued to follow her old ways and endured the pain.
This frustrated me because, as her daughter, I do not want my mom to suffer. But at the same time, I recognize the systems that have trapped my mom in this cycle of pain. And just like how the sea anemone hugged the shrimp tightly prior to devouring it, my mom found herself right at the tentacles of the sea anemones of the patriarchy and her husband, unable to escape from their grasp.
For me, however, it is easier to escape. I have the privilege of walking away and asserting myself in situations that I find unfair and unjust. Since young, I have slipped in and out of the grasps of the tentacles. Sometimes, I would be held onto firmer and my escape would be difficult. Other times, I would freely dabble in and out as I pleased, feeling the ‘hug’ of the tentacles but not staying long enough for the tentacle to seep its toxins into my body. Especially now that I have gained more power through my education and experiences, it is easier for me to escape the sea anemone that is my father.
The sea anemone, in my eyes, was something easy to overcome. But for my mom, it was something that held onto her firmly and prevented her escape. It, of course, is easy for me to say, “Just walk away if you’re not being treated right!” but for people like my mom who grew up in these cultures and grew up not knowing it was possible to experience anything other than emotional abuse, it is hard for her to just walk away from her husband.
Since coming across this realization, I’ve changed my approach with my mom. I’ve also come to realize that even the most innocuous beings have the capacity to cause fear, pain, and hurt. Just because something doesn’t seem threatening to me, does not mean it is not threatening to someone else. Writing this out has helped process my thoughts and I hope that this is food for thought for those of you reading as well. What/who is the sea anemone in your life?