This is Water

Two fish are swimming together, and an older fish passes them, going the opposite direction.  The older fish nods and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” The two younger fish keep swimming, until eventually one of them turns to the other and asks, “What is water?

This joke is how David Foster Wallace began his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, going on to teach those in the audience about the importance of awareness, or the importance of being aware of one’s surroundings. I remember having to watch a video of this speech my freshman year at college, and like every other impactful or powerful commencement speech and video available online, it got me thinking and feeling as if I was a better person just for having watched it. But, eventually, I continued about my day as normal, not paying attention to the water around me.

The water is everything that surrounds us–the mundane, daily tasks we’re responsible for completing, despite how deeply unfulfilling they might be. The water, as Wallace refers to it, is the ‘the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines.’ But, when faced with these daily annoyances, we have a choice.

In the Liberal Arts, we continually hear the narrative: “We are teaching you how to think.” Learning how to think means learning how to exercise control over what and how we think. It means we can approach every single day through a self-centered lens, asking ourselves: Who are all these people in my way? Doesn’t anybody understand how busy I am?

Or, we can take the time to acknowledge our water. We can take the time to look around, see others for what they really are, and be happy about the smaller things in life. That’s what life-long learning is all about. Or, as Wallace puts it: “It is about the real value of education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with 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.

-Erika Voeller


Scott MeyerCLAComment