Light Notes: Like sea anemones and clownfish, we need each other

Timothy J. Ledbetter, Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Wash.) on

Published in Religious News

Recently I wrote about common challenging emotional stressors that appear to be mostly stimulated of late by the pandemic’s social isolation. These conditions generate a strange combination of listlessness, undirected anxiety and inability to concentrate. Together they make up the paradoxical emotion of acedia.

If that is an accurate diagnosis for our current collective sense of malaise, what might help reverse these debilitating symptoms and rebuild new capacities of being, belonging and behaving?

One answer may come from nature, including examples of lichen and sea anemonefish/clownfish. (Researchers can verify what follows.)

Without going into too much detail, lichens are basically made up of two different biological organisms — algae and fungi — in a close, long-term interaction presumed to be mutually beneficial.

In the oceanic example, Wikipedia provides some detail: “The clownfish feeds on small invertebrates that otherwise have potential to harm the sea anemone, and the fecal matter from the clownfish provides nutrients to the sea anemone. The clownfish is protected from predators by the anemone’s stinging cells, to which the clownfish is immune. The clownfish emits a high-pitched sound that deters butterfly fish, which would otherwise eat the anemone, making the relationship mutualistic.”

Forest and ocean dwellers help us understand and appreciate a possible treatment for acedia: symbiosis. Wikipedia states: “In 1879, Heinrich Anton de Bary (German plant pathologist) defined symbiosis as 'the living together of unlike organisms.'" That strikes a hopeful and useful chord for all of us.

I believe that our Creator made us to function best in symbiosis. While you may chuckle with me as I write that we are certainly “unlike organisms,” yet still we must live together.

Indeed, we are vastly different people; we all can describe the many and various ways. The oceanic example shows that symbiosis is multifaceted and complex. So too is life in its sorrows and its glories.


If lichen is a healthy society, my fungus needs your algae. Under the sea as on land, some of us are like anemones, some are like clownfish (keep chuckling!). You have some of what I need, and I may have some of what you need.

Even as we differ, we cannot abandon each other. Most will agree that the slogan from early in our country’s history still speaks truth that united we stand and divided we fall.

At the personal level, I believe that developing symbiotic perspectives and connections can reverse the debilitating malaise of acedia that has mired down so many. Symbiotic thinking and living can and will re-energize our lives toward engagement, creativity, and appreciation.

There is room in our hearts for others. We are endowed by our Creator with two ears and one mouth to guide our conversations. Each of us can bring our best selves, our “better angels,” to respectful conversations, yes, even with masking and social distancing.

In so doing we as a people can courageously live into symbiotic relationships guided by our national motto, E Pluribus Unum, and our national pledge to be one nation under God, indivisible.

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