Today Is the 8th Anniversary of David Foster Wallace's "This is Water," and It's Still the Best Master Course in Empathy and Framing I've Ever Read

It's not about "life after death." It's about "life before death."
Publish date:
May 21, 2013
anniversary, david foster wallace, this is 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?"

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.

-- David Foster Wallace, May 21, 2005, Kenyon College

So I just watched the sweet Disneyfied version of David Foster Wallace's "This is Water" speech.

I watched it after learning today was the eighth anniversary of the speech -- and subsequently searched and stumbled to find the full text online.

Instead, I found the video. It is a sweet video that is worth watching. Here, watch it right now. For me, it inspired emotion, which is what I look for in things.

But after watching it, I still wanted to find, and re-read, the full text -- which is not Disney, but more Fincher-esque.

Dark and unwieldy and hopeful and twisted and tangly in its angry clarity and urgent need to make clear something that is so very difficult to make clear at all.

"This is water."

It's a shorthand. It's a shorthand for: "Please, I beg of you. Wake up. Be alive. Be a real human being right now. Be young. Be dumb. Forget what you know. See it all new. Can you? Are you capable of it anymore?"

There is a reason this speech is considered one of the most remarkable commencement speeches ever given, read and watched and listened to over and over. In a sea of daily soul death, it offers an empathic anchor into this world of often seemingly mundane horrors: the passive-aggressive email from a co-worker, the icy response from a spouse, the discovery that a hope you once held so close is in actuality a delusion, the routine that you are scared makes you duller daily.

It's these tiny horrors that are enough to embrace a perpetual attitude of checking out.

Or defeat. Or negativity. Or bitter, repressed anger until the tears start to form at the corner of your eyes, trickling down, seemingly hopeless, like everything else.

And then the "fuck its" set in. The robotic unconsciousness spreads like a virus. Life is suddenly happening to you. You are the victim. You are the misunderstood loner waging a pointless war with the maddening monologue in your brain and all of those adversaries, real and imagined, that you do battle with in perpetuity.

Unsurprisingly, my favorite part of the entire speech was something that was not included in the Disney video version of it (which is not a calculating insult; I like Disney as much as the next princess). I've shared the excerpt with you below. The last line is bolded for emphasis. And my love of this portion has nothing to do with religion.

It is this:

Here's another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive."

The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."

It's easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people's two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy's interpretation is true and the other guy's is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from.

Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys.

As if a person's most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there's the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us.

But religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up.

Stunning. This may be one of the best, most clear-eyed, penetrating statements I've ever read in my life.

It's why I will never trust people who can almost never admit they are wrong or have immense trouble doing so. In interacting with this type of human being, it is almost as if I can see, nearly flickering in its visibility, the distinct walls surrounding them. You will never get through those walls. Ever.

But -- you will knock yourself out running up against them, time and time again.

It's almost enough to make me grateful for an early life spent doubting myself so thoroughly.

Sure, sometimes I wish I had more confidence when I was younger. Or hey, even now, despite whatever people may think -- I'm talking about that true, unwavering self-knowledge and love and assurance in your own goodness and possibility, in your potential for hope, in your own energy and belief system -- without the ability for The Adversaries to affect it with their own force fields of whatever toxic sludge might be creeping slowly, ever closer to your and your tiny sphere of reality.

I am grateful for this doubt. Because the positive outcome of perpetual self-hatred is this: Openness.

When you are comfortable thinking you are always wrong, you are at least open in a way that the aggressively certain, the unbending, the arrogant will never experience in its vibrantly freeing, near-decadent glory.

The Always Right are busy giving every fuck. While you are mastering DGAF in all its freeing magical powers.

There are many words for it. Framing. Resilience. Rebirth, on the daily.

And the great trick, of course, is conquering the art of the in-between. Belief in yourself, protection of your own energy and power (and I don't mean in a "48 Laws" way, but a personal integrity sense) while balancing an openness and receptivity that in the world at large, in the grand scope of it all, you know so very little.

Do you know why change is so difficult for people to make?

It was meted out so mathematically in the excellent book "Change or Die," and it is this: If you change something, it as an acknowledgement that This Means You Have Been Doing it Wrong All Along.

And if you are Always Right, this is unfathomable.

This is fucking death. This is defeat. This is the blaring siren call of the unspeakable: It is shame.

Except, in the wise words of the guru from "Eat Pray Love":

"Who cares?"

Preach, sister. (Sure, the guru -- the concept of gurus even -- is sketchy.) Who. Cares. It's the scientific corollary to having no fucks left to give.

With those two words, you can be free.

I'll end this little meditation on my other favorite passage from the speech (and I really do urge you to read it all the way through, even if you've read it before), which is an articulation of the inner dialogue that can drive so many of us, including Mr. Wallace himself, to choose permanent unconsciousness rather than face the water itself.

Here's something else that's weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship--be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles--is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving.... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn't sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don't just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which 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."

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck.


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