Be Like the Whale

I’m slowly making my way through Herman Melville’s class, Moby Dick. It is not a page turner, but it is a powerful book. It is at once a story of whaling, a naturalist discussion of whales, a book of philosophy, and much, much more.

“Call me Ishmael.” Thus begins Moby Dick. Throughout the book, Ishmael describes feature after feature of whaling and whales, but he never leaves it there. He always turns these observations into larger considerations of life and philosophy. I find them both interesting and humorous. Ishmael takes the most mundane things and stretches them out to fit some great point of philosophy and human wisdom.

One of these has become a sort of mantra for my life lately. “Be like the whale” goes through my head often. Ishmael describes the whale’s ability to be in both the warmest and the coolest of waters:

It does seem to me, that herein we see the rare virtue of a strong individual vitality, and the rare virtue of thick walls, and the rare virtue of interior spaciousness. Oh, man! Admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among ice. Do thou, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equator; keep thy blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own (68.303).

In this paragraph, Ishmael describes how proper boundaries and significant internal reflection can enable us to engage in human life without being tossed to and fro by the situations and emotions of people around us.

The idea Ishmael communicates is that you can learn to live according to your own principles and perspective and not be driven by the emotions and reactions of other people. When it is cold, you remain warm. When it is hot, you can remain cool. You can “retain . . . a temperature of thine own.” You can be like St. Peter’s dome which, “consisted of two shells, a ribbed construction, and windows in the drum and cupola. The double shells allowed the dome to be more visible and offered protection against the weather” (“The Engineering Behind Saint Peter’s Basilica”).

At first, I just thought it was funny that Ishmael would use the whale to describe living non-anxiously in the midst of the anxiety around us. I shared it with a few friends in part for the insight, in part for the humor of using this analogy. Gradually, however, it became a part of me. It became a shorthand for all that I had studied in theology, ancient philosophy, family systems theory, and the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling. I would find myself saying to my friends as they dealt with various issues in their lives, “Be like the whale.” I would also say it to myself. It made me laugh, and it helped me focus.

As I continued reading Moby Dick, I found another lesson that fit well with “be like the whale.” Ishmael describes how thousands of sperm whales would herd together. Even as the hunt would take place, the herd was so huge, that while the whales fled, some at the center of the herd would “freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments; yea, serenely revelled in dalliance and delight” (87.375).

Here is the lesson he derived from it:

But even so, amid the torpedoed Atlantic of my being, do I myself still for ever centrally disport in mute calm; and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe me in eternal mildness of joy (87.375).

This really describes well how I try to approach the tumults of life and “keep a temperature” of my own.

I always try to find “eternal mildness of joy” by re-centering on this: I am made to know God. I am accepted and valued by Him. I’m forgiven of all my sins. God has made me to know Him and to do significant things in the world. He wants to work with me and through me to serve and bless others. I can find my joy in Him and then relate in love, develop my abilities, and continue to serve. He will take care of me and provide for me, giving me meaning, power, security, and acceptance. This is my rock of refuge, “the eternal mildness of joy.” I try to come back to this point and not let this good go past me. As the philosopher Seneca said, “Above all, my dear Lucilius, make this your business. Learn how to feel joy” (Letter XXIII, 55).

This does not mean that there is no struggle. In fact, often “ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me.” But I reserve that deep place, deep inland where I feel “the eternal mildness of joy.” I think that’s something of what the Apostle Paul meant when he said that he did not want them to mourn as “those who have no hope.”

That’s why that quote from Ishmael in Moby Dick meant so much to me and makes so much sense to me. As C.S. Lewis said, “joy is the serious business of heaven.” Even on earth, we can begin to experience it, even “amid the torpedoed Atlantic of my being.” In that way, I can continually create a temperature of my own and be like the whale.


Photo by Simon Infanger on Unsplash


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