Near the end of Disney Pixar’s Soul, the main character listens to a fable about a fish searching for the ocean.
This is the version of the story in the movie:
The Fish and the Ocean Story
I heard this story about a fish.
He swims up to an older fish and says, “I’m trying to find this thing they call ‘the ocean.'”
“The ocean? the older fish says, “That’s what you’re in right now.”
“This?” says the young fish. “This is water. What I want is the ocean!”
The Meaning of the Fish Story in the Movie Soul
The young fish in this story wants to find something amazing called the ocean. He doesn’t know where to find it so he asks for some help from an older and wiser fish. That older fish knows the search. She’s been there.
We all spend a lot of time searching for meaning and purpose in our lives, but usually the thing we are searching for is right in front of us. Reaching a goal won’t make us happy. We can find happiness right where we are today.
The Fish and the Ocean Reflection Questions
- What do you think the young fish did next after the story?
- Why do you think the young fish has a hard time believing he is swimming in the ocean?
- What purpose, meaning, or goals are you searching for in your life?
- What do you appreciate most in your life right now?
The Source of the Fish Story in Soul
From what I can tell, the story was drawn from Fr. Anthony de Mello’s book, The Song of Bird. His version of the story is less about purpose and meaning and more about the search for God. The reference to “sanyasi robes” suggests the story’s Hindu origins.
Reread de Mello’s lesson at the end of the story, because you are the little fish. All of us are the little fish.
“Stop searching, little fish. There isn’t anything to look for. All you have to do is look.”Anthony de Mello
Update: According to this article about the movie, co-writer and director Pete Docter was inspired by Fr. James Martin’s book The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Anything, which includes “The Little Fish” story by Fr. Anthony de Mello. Fr. Martin uses the story to express the benefits of the Examen prayer.
“The Little Fish” by Anthony de Mello
“Excuse me,” said an ocean fish, “You are older than I so can you tell me where to find this thing they call the Ocean?”
“The Ocean,” said the older fish, “is the thing you are in now.”
“Oh, this? But this is water. What I’m seeking is the Ocean,” said the disappointed fish as he swam away to search elsewhere.
He came to the Master in sannyasi robes. And he spoke sannyasi language:
“For years I have been seeking God. I have sought Him everywhere that He is said to be: on mountain peaks, the vastness of the desert, and the silence of the cloister and the dwellings of the poor.”
“Have you found him?” the Master asked. “No. I have not. Have you?”
What could the Master say? The evening sun was sending shafts of golden light into the room. Hundreds of sparrows were twittering on a banyan tree. In the distance one could hear the sound of highway traffic. A mosquito droned a warning that it was going to strike… And yet this man could sit there and say he had not found Him.
After a while he left, disappointed, to search elsewhere.
Stop searching, little fish. There isn’t anything to look for. All you have to do is look.
A Similar Fish Story: “This Is Water” by David Foster Wallace
The fish story in Soul is also very similar to David Foster Wallace’s famous story, “This is Water,” from his commencement speech at Kenyon College:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?“
Wallace’s summary applies well to the fish story in Soul:
“The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”David Foster Wallace