Friday, September 26, 2008

How's the water?

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.

* For the full text in the Guardian, click here

top picture, graffiti around Spitalfields, Brick Lane.
bottom picture, graffiti on the South Bank, near London Bridge.


Akelamalu said...

It's not until they're gone that you appreciate just how much they taught you is it? x

tut-tut said...

You've been think quite deeply about this. David Foster Wallace was a writer I had only been aware of tangentially, out of the corner of my eye, so to say. Now I've gotten Consider the Oyster, and realize how much I've missed--and will miss.

My mother was the same way! Always sending notes along, helping neighbors. Not a spare seat at her memorial service.

I'm trying to be aware of it all. In fact, recently I've been upset about how often I get upset . . .

Goodness! enough for a comment, already.

goatman said...

The fish story really hit my funny bone, thanks! Hope you don't mind if I copied it and sent it to my girl at work?
Today I heard that if you see a white crow, it is time to re-establish your connection with your reality. Who knows what may be out there?

lettuce said...

its true, akelamalu - and some of them are little things, and some of them are just huge

Tut-tut, i was only aware of him tangentially too, & now wanting to read him.
i get that too, being upset about being so easily upset... but i think its better than being unupsetable

goatman, of course i don't mind! not my story anyway! a white crow. that could be a powerful omen...

Coffee Messiah said...

Thanks for that. An interesting read, and indeed it's the little things in life that ripple out to others. ; )

Dumdad said...

Thanx for sharing that - I'd missed the Guardian article first time round.

It's tragically ironic that David Foster Wallace, who wrote in his speech "it is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head", in fact, committed suicide. I don't know if he shot himself but it's irrelevant really how he killed himself.

Perhaps his self-awareness became too much to bear. We'll never know.

Lynne said...

This was great to read, Letty. And so true! It always makes me feel good when I let someone out ahead of me in traffic, or offer help to an elderly person in the grocery who can't quite reach something. Hopefully those little acts of kindness affect them in the same way.

By the way—you're doing a very fine job of swimming.

Absolute Vanilla (and Atyllah) said...

Beautiful and very pertinent post, Lettuce and yes, the words, the position taken, is very true.
I had a situation last night when I heard that after two years of slogging on my manuscript, the door is closing on the genre I've been working in and in effect, I've missed the boat. My first response, through the lens of self was to feel as gutted as a mackerel but then I remembered that I am more than just "me" and when I sat back and thought about it I was conscious of the duality that is all of us and all our worlds. At one level I was gutted, yet at the other level, what I call the soul level, there was the same, ever present stillness and peace - and I thought, you know what, I choose my responses and I can be miserable or I can just watch this and move with the flow of things. I've opted for the latter.

Barbara said...

Learning to check in with others and to offer encouragement when possible is a good lesson. Being busy sometimes makes us forget these simple lessons of living that make the world a kinder place.

Trac said...

"unupsetable" nice word.

Yes, it's better than being that.

Shammickite said...

Oh yes, to be truly part of the world we have to project outwards but bring our own self with us on that journey.
You seem to have much more meaningful graffiti that we do here... ours usually consists of naughty words.

Squirrel said...

what a lovely post, and it does matter that we see all the little things and that we see every day that the world belongs to us in one sense, and does not revolve around us in another.

I try to put myself in the place of the slow pedestrian or the slow co-worker. empathy.

Squirrel said...

PS my mom was also very very kind to people and would go out of her way to help someone in need.

Steve said...

Wow. What an amazing post! So much of this resonated with me. Zen practice functions this way, hopefully breaking us out of our habits and routines and heads so we can see what's REAL around us -- the water!

I'm going to go read the Guardian piece right now. DFW was terrific, wasn't he?

Love the pics, as usual. :)

d. chedwick said...

I only read one short thing by DFW in the New Yorker, but maybe he wrote several things for them-- I will put him on my library list. Very sad he is gone.

Reya Mellicker said...

What a great post! Bless your mother's lovely heart. You were fortunate to grow up with her, definitely.

As for unhinging oneself from our individual grid of assumptions (that's my term for it), meditation is a great way to punch holes in what we KNOW is right.

A quicker way is to drop LSD. You see right through it all, instantly. Wouldn't ever do it again, but it sure worked for me way back in the 1970's.

Love to you, dear!

mouse (aka kimy) said...

this is now the second reference to david foster wallace I have encountered. I must read him.

your mum was such a special person, I'm glad you are keeping her alive through your periodic musings and remembrances. if there is another place we all congregate when we move on from this plane, I will probably run up and give her a hug. thank you for sharing her spirit - even when it makes you sad. but sadness is all part of it, isn't it.


love the street art!

lettuce said...

well poop.

i thought i posted a longish comment responding to you all. i wrote it, i wonder where it went....

so i'll just say thankyou for your comments.

she was very special and its so painful missing her, but i wouldn't have it any other way really.

and in relation to Wallace's piece and some of what mum showed me, it is the little things.
and the little things are the big things.

Pod said...

we are so lucky to have had such wonderful little moths
i hug you

lettuce said...

hug you back