Writing the last post on Marcus Aurelius made me think of the parallels to David Foster Wallace’s famous speech turned book This Is Water. Infinite Jest is one of my favorite books of all time and I’m gearing up to reread it after I finish the Stoics, but I may prefer this insightful little piece to the tremendous novel. It’s such a well constructed work that I’ve found it difficult to pick apart and discuss in pieces, so I invite you to take some time in the next couple days and listen through it. It is shorter than an episode of your favorite TV show and it will stay with you for a long time. In the meantime I’ll give you the beginning and the end.
He begins the commencement speech with a joke:
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?”
This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. 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. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.
Wallace goes on to describe how the act of deciding what we think about defines how we view the world and what kind of a person we are. Just like the Stoic philosopher, the novelist puts stress on the difficult task of controlling our judgments and opinions. In his insightful and humorous style DFW also points out how ubiquitous these judgments and opinions are and how easy it is to forget that we are seeing the world through them. He closes with:
The real value of a real education has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.”
“This is water.”
When I am at my best, I remember this message and bring to a more conscious level. When I’m annoyed at work or aggravated in slow-moving traffic I say to myself “this is water,” and shift my perspective. Sometimes I think about how the human body is more than 60% percent water, and I will look at my hands and say “this is water.”
Here’s the whole speech. Make the time and give it a listen: