2018: it’s been a wild year. For many reasons, this year in particular was a big one for me. Just after turning 26 the previous fall, I sank pretty low into one of the deepest valleys I have ever experienced. Inversely, on the way back up, I soared straight up to some of my tallest peaks — a high that seemed to last for months.
It’s not terribly challenging to gently frame an emotion, a situation, or an internal dialogue when you’re having a good time. When you feel good about yourself and the world around you, having a positive perspective naturally comes with ease.
However, it’s in those darker moments, the ones where you’re just barely crawling along the bottom of a valley floor, that reframing your perspective can change your entire world.
Instead of intimately sharing on how the dynamic of perspective-framing has shaped my world for the better, I’m going to share an anecdote with you — one especially close to my heart.
This is the story of the 52 Hertz Whale.
It began in the 1980s, when a sound was picked up by sonar in the North Pacific Ocean. This sound sparked curiosity and speculation around the world.
The sound is a whale of unidentified species, calling at a highly unusual frequency of 52 Hertz, a frequency spoken by no other known species of whale. Why is this? His unique vocalizations have led scientists to believe he possesses some type of physical abnormality — similar to that of a human with a lisp. Distinct amongst his kind, he cannot speak to any whales in the Greater Pacific Ocean, since no other whale can hear or understand him.
This most likely means that instead of living in a pod, he wanders the ocean alone. He hunts for food alone, he migrates alone. He has no partners with which to mate. He is, allegedly, the Loneliest Whale on Earth.
Do we know this emotional narrative to be a scientific fact? No, because we’ve never actually seen the whale, we’ve only heard him. But as you can imagine, finding one whale swimming the depths of the Pacific is not unlike searching for a needle in a haystack.
Over time, the 52 Hertz Whale has become an unwitting celebrity, as he continues to embody a cultural icon and a cipher for the feelings of many unconnected people across the globe.
What I find most fascinating about The Loneliest Whale on Earth is the array of reactions it receives from people who hear about him.
Is this story objectively sad? Is this story beautiful? … Is it both?
It’s easy for us to anthropomorphize animals, because giving them human attributes is comfortable — that’s what we know best. People subconsciously make assumptions about animal behavior, assumptions that may be based primarily on their own emotions, without fully understanding the behavior itself.
The 52 Hertz Whale seems to embody different values or meaning for anyone who hears the story. For me, this story is a the perfect example of how perspective-framing truly changes everything. I talk about this whale often (and with great fervor). Oftentimes, the people listening ask me, “Why do you like this story so much? Doesn’t it make you feel sad?” Well sure, but that is only one way to frame it.
For me, the Loneliest Whale on Earth helps me frame a complex array of emotions all in one sitting. He makes me feel vulnerable and reminds me how intrinsically important it is to have friendships, companionships, and partners. He is a reminder that, as humans, we’re constantly searching for meaning, and that we find ways to place it in any way and anywhere we can. In its own right, the story of the 52 Hertz Whale is just as strange and unique and beautiful as it is sad.
But most importantly, if I chose to frame the story of the 52 Hertz Whale simply as being “sad,” well… I would certainly have a lot less to talk about.