St. Peter and the Sign of the Fish

As one who left the Catholic Church over fifty years ago, I understand why there is such a strong divergence in reactions to the coming visit of the Pope to Ireland. At a simplistic level perhaps, but nevertheless grammatically and respectfully correct, I use Pope for a specific holder of that office, and pope for the office in general. I have also investigated other religions as part of my life’s journey, I have walked many spiritual paths alone and with others and now I tell this story. I have prayed with Christians, Muslims, with Russian Orthodox, with Quakers, and discussed the Infinite with atheists and agnostics, as well as conversing with other spiritually committed individuals and tribes. That experience also colours my response to the points raised in this article by Fintan O’Toole, writing in the “Guardian” newspaper. I suggest that we need to clarify our attitudes on some of the issues raised therein. There is a proverb that comes to mind now and seems to apply to the current situation, namely “a fish rots from the head down”. A quick “trawl” through the many references to “fish” (pun intended!) has set me thinking and I would like to share those thoughts with you.

In 1768, Sir James Porter wrote about the religion, law, government, and manners of the Turks, in which he said: The Turks have a homely proverb applied on such occasions. They say “the fish stinks first at the head”, meaning that if the servant is disorderly, it is because the master is so. In recent years and probably reflecting the confusion creating in general around the world caused by the comments and behaviour of some prominent leaders in business as well as in politics, it has been applied when organisations got into trouble. It suggests that the blame should be put on the ‘head’ that leads an organisation.

Two fish
Two fish

Now before I get into hot water (ouch, again) with fishermen (and again) and anglers (oh no, not again!) in general, I should emphasise that the old proverb was not based upon the biology of fish and one should not take the saying literally. In fact, and as it were to balance the scales (!!!) the allusion is just not true. As is the case with any other living creature, after death, the decomposition of a fish can begin anywhere and and proceed at about the same rate. Nevertheless, since it first appeared, users of the saying have tended to accept the saying literally.


More  apt for the topic?

Let me draw your attention now, to the many times in recent years when, even though the allusion to the fish’s head was not specifically alleged, it has been inferred. Think of the many corporate scandals, political debacles, and show business improprieties that have implied that the stink came initially from the head. And in support of that belief, many chief executives, board members, and senior managers were either unable or unwilling to speak out or even to admit the existence of the alleged problems.


Now in trying to understand the rationale of such situations, the accusation does make sense at certain levels. Imagine a business in which the top man or woman is tough and driven and makes heavy demands on subordinates, staff members irrespective of their personal views and standards will probably behave defensively to protect their jobs and try to avoid the limelight. When leaders of institutions are outgoing and supportive of more democratic practices, the staff will find it easier to show those qualities themselves.

Nevertheless, there are other facets to this that must be taken into account. It seems to suggest that in every organisation or movement, the top person’s wishes are primary and must be obeyed. In all honesty it should be said that there are weaknesses in even the best of organisations. Bosses are only in a position to influence their direct subordinates. I remember on one particular occasion, when I was working as a consultant on an organisation change programme with a State body, I drew the attention of my counterpart in the organisation to certain issues that I felt needed to be dealt with. He told me that he agreed one hundred per cent with me but asked me to leave it with him and he would sort it out at the next level, his manager being an assistant general manager. I waited for a reply for a few months and when I got no feedback, I asked for a meeting with the Assistant General Manager. He, in turn, assured me that I was right but requested that I leave it with him because the General Manager might be difficult to convince. You can, at this stage, guess the rest. A few months later, I had a similar meeting with the General Manager, followed finally by an accidental meeting with the Chairman at an outside function. After enquiring how the project was going and my giving a fairly neutral summary, he said to me: “You know, I feel that they are keeping something from me and I have a good idea what it is, but what can I do when they won’t tell me!” It is clear that there are more sides to these stories than the simple blaming of the person at the top.

There are, however, some other relevant issues to consider. Does the culture of the organisation (“The way we do things around here”) encourage or allow staff members to question the validity of decisions of senior members? On top of that are there other members of the organisation who agree with the toxic behaviour of their seniors and are only too willing to support them because of the benefits it brings to them. And, of course, there is also the structure of the organisation itself; is it flexible and adaptable to changes in the external environment or is it “arthritic” and with “limited flexibility” to respond to external demands?

Cow in Val di Scalve, Alps mountains, Italy

For a little light relief and a whiff of methane at this stage, follow this link

These are not problems that have only now cropped up in our modern technology driven, goals orientated, secular society. A quick check on the history of organisations, large and small, down through history, will show that these problems have not, and do not, arise suddenly, nor are they caused by just one individual. The rot started almost unnoticed and developed and spread over time. It is a phenomenon that has been there since Adam was knee-high to a grasshopper. It has been the cause of the decline and fall of empires and petty chieftains. If you don’t have a long memory or a large library to consult, then just let your mind wander over the troubled areas of our world and ask “how did these situations get so out of control that they now threaten our very existence?” And I bet you thought I had fallen off my trolley when I offered you “the light relief and sniff of methane”. I was just softening you up, wasn’t I?

That is why we must, at all costs, achieve two main goals. Firstly, we must cultivate at all levels of society in all global cultures the principle of “transparency”. When a parent tells a child that they may not have something they want, or go to a place where their friends are gathering, the prohibition should be accompanied by a simple and open answer containing the word “because” when asked the inevitable question: “why?”. If they can’t find that answer, then perhaps they need to examine their own personal and inherited beliefs and check the relevance of their childhood to today’s children. Similar situations arise for managers of organisations, for head teachers in schools, for members of parliaments, for government ministers., but also for you and for me. Most certainly, this change will not, and indeed, could not be achieved overnight. But remember, the situations that call now for transparency were not developed over night.

For transparency to work and be used, another imponderable mystery has to be addressed. Why is our Ego so unwilling to allow us access to our Unconscious Mind, at both the individual and the collective level. Why are we so fearful about images and the ancient knowledge embedded in our DNA and so tightly guarded that we treat it like Pandora’s box and fear that the amassed knowledge and understanding of untold experiences of our ancestors must be kept out of awareness and dismissed as dreams, and fantasy, and even madness? G.K. Chesterton once wrote: “The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” That is why I believe that we must introduce more, hitherto unconventional, yet effective methods such as community art projects, “town hall” meetings with local and regional representatives of government to encourage direct dialogue between the general public and their representative and not leave that interaction until elections and door-to-door canvassing allow it.

I know, I know, transparency and openness will take a very long time to be developed and installed in our society. It will, most certainly, be a journey of more than the proverbial One Thousand Miles. So, isn’t it time we put on our walking shoes and took the First Step? For this reason, I would hope that during the upcoming Papal Visit, people are allowed to express their pain, their anger, their enthusiasm or their commitment but tempered with respect for the views of others. I hope especially that those who have no direct personal experience of the controversial and upsetting issues now under scrutiny contain their outbursts and not indulge in throwing accusations based upon hearsay or anger, or shower fawning greetings that turn a blind eye to the facts of life. Even though Ireland, the Island of Saints and Scholars, may have a somewhat tarnished image today, let us also remember that Ireland is also Ireland of the Welcomes. We are human, and we must come to terms with the two conflicting images.

P.S. If you would like more information on the topics raised in this blog, try a web search using some of the key words, as I did! You will be pleasantly surprised how much information is available. In particular, I would recommend this link.

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