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?"
David Foster Wallace, a young writer who died recently and tragically, used this story to make a point about how some of the most crucial realities are the ones which its most difficult to perceive or discuss.
It introduces a speech - a wonderful speech, I think - which was reprinted in the Guardian, September 20th. The speech is particularly concerned with that most crucial reality - our innate, hard-wired, automatic conviction of our own self-importance, the way our experience of the world inevitably, naturally, centers around ourselves.
Wallace describes this conviction as one example of how we can be automatically quite sure of something which is utterly wrong.
And he goes on to explain and insist that - although this conviction is innate and "natural" [of course we grow up seeing everything from our own point of view. How could we not?] - we do actually have a choice about whether or not we "do the work of somehow altering or getting free of (this) natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centred, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self."
Its not a preachy or moralistic speech and he grounds it in real experiences - like having to shop for supper in a busy supermarket and then drive through heavy traffic at the end of a long day's work. He talks about how that experience might be seen and responded to in very different ways. Depending on our mind-set. Depending on the choices we make about how we see things.
And he concludes: "... if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options (ie. other than the default setting). It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: the only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship."
"..there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom....
It is about simple awareness - awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: 'This is water, this is water.' "*
One reason I wanted to post this here is that I'm convinced he is right - both about the naturalness of our self-centredness (how can we not be centred in our self? its where we begin, its the point from which we experience everything) but also about the choices we have - at least some of the time - about how we see and live in the world.
I know its not the same kind of choice for everyone and maybe the choice is easier for some than for others. But its the explanation which I think - which I choose to believe - best explains the phenomena of love and friendship and compassion and giving in the world. And it offers hope.
The second reason I wanted to post this is that this exactly expresses the way my mother was - how she saw the world, how she interracted with people, taking the time to do the little things, asking the woman on the check-out when her shift ended, saying something kind or encouraging. Paying attention and making the effort.
I love and miss her so much, but this has also made me think, through a lot of tears, about how much I owe her for showing me this way of being as necessary and possible. For teaching me something about the water, and how to swim.