Lessons from David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water”
Today at a Glance
- On May 21, 2005, David Foster Wallace stepped up to the podium at Kenyon College to deliver the annual commencement address. If there is one piece of writing that has had the greatest impact on how I think about the world and my experience in it, it is this speech.
- When we allow our arrogance to win, we are the prisoner completely unaware of our state of imprisonment. When we fight the arrogance, we experience a richer, more complex, and more dynamic existence.
- We all come with a default setting that places ourselves at the center of the universe and disallows any level of compassion or empathy. Rejecting the default setting breathes new life into our days.
- Do not allow yourself to be enslaved by the mimetic worships of your default settings. True freedom is found in choosing how to think and what to think about.
What’s a Rich Text element?
The rich text element allows you to create and format headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, images, and video all in one place instead of having to add and format them individually. Just double-click and easily create content.
Static and dynamic content editing
A rich text element can be used with static or dynamic content. For static content, just drop it into any page and begin editing. For dynamic content, add a rich text field to any collection and then connect a rich text element to that field in the settings panel. !
How to customize formatting for each rich text
Headings, paragraphs, blockquotes, figures, images, and figure captions can all be styled after a class is added to the rich text element using the "When inside of" nested selector system.
On May 21, 2005, David Foster Wallace stepped up to the podium at Kenyon College to deliver the annual commencement address.
The author was most well known for his novels, which had received much critical acclaim and had earned him the praise of being called, "one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years."
If he were alive today, I can only assume that it would shock him to learn that the speech he delivered in 2005 would be perhaps his most durable and impactful contribution to the world.
To put it simply, if there is one piece of writing that has had the greatest impact on how I think about the world and my experience in it, it is this speech.
The speech—which would later become known as "This Is Water"—begins with a simple parable of the young fish and the old fish.
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?”
With this clever opener, David Foster Wallace makes a central point that runs through the speech: the most important realities are often completely invisible to us (and will remain that way if we let them).
In today's piece, I'd like to take you on a short journey through his words, cover the three critical lessons that have had a lasting impact on my life, and leave you with one action item.
(Note: Italics represent quotes from the speech, with bolded portions added for emphasis)
Lesson: Fight the Arrogance
Early in the speech, Foster Wallace shares a simple story of a religious man and an atheist discussing the atheist's near-death experience at a bar.
The atheist was on the verge of death in a snowstorm, so tried praying, and was promptly saved by two eskimos who came walking past him.
The religious man hears the story as conclusive proof of the existence of a God—the prayers were answered. The atheist tells the story as conclusive proof of the lack of existence of a God—two eskimos saved him, not his prayers.
Here, Foster Wallace makes his point:
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...The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.
There's a quote attributed to Mark Twain that I absolutely love: "It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so."
We all walk through the world in a natural state of hard-wired arrogance. It basically tells us that we are great and correct and everyone else is not-so-great and wrong.
It's easier for us to have a 100% certain view of the world—to allow every new fact to either:
- Confirm our view of reality and be absorbed, OR
- Refute our view of reality and be bounced off into oblivion.
But easy ≠ correct.
When we allow our arrogance to win, we are the prisoner completely unaware of our state of imprisonment.
When we fight the arrogance—when we learn to question some of our baseline certainties—we experience a richer, more complex, and more dynamic existence.
Lesson: Reject Your Default Setting
Building on this, Foster Wallace addresses the human propensity for allowing misery to govern the banalities of day-to-day life:
And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.
The "default setting" is a critical concept to internalize.
We all come with a factory setting, replete with arrogance, that places each of us at the center of our own universe and disallows the compassion or empathy that breathes new life into our days.
Foster Wallace expands on the idea with a deeper dive into the practical meaning of "day-in-day-out" in an average life. He weaves an illustration of a long day at work followed by traffic jams and a crowded supermarket—an easy-to-imagine tale of annoyance and misery.
If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
When we reject our default setting, we are letting compassion and empathy expand our worldview beyond ourselves. Not only does this enable us to view the world in a more intellectually honest manner, it also allows a fire to bring new energy to the banalities we so often dread.
Lesson: Find True Freedom
The closing section of the speech begins with a passage on the dangers of blind, unconscious worship:
You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship...There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship...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...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.
This all reminds me of the Ancient Greek story of Narcissus, who is so obsessed with his beauty that he sees his own reflection in a pool of water, becomes entranced, and falls into the water and drowns.
That which we worship becomes that which enslaves us. When we allow mimetic desire and default settings to control our worship, we are on a collision course with misery.
But when we reject our default settings, we can embrace our ability to choose how we direct our attention and awareness:
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…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.”
True freedom is found in choosing how to think and what to think about—in the recognition that the choice is yours to make and you alone have the power to make it.
Let us all commit to making that choice—to reminding ourselves, day-in-day-out, that This Is Water.
Summarizing the three key lessons to take home with you today:
- Fight the Arrogance: When we allow our arrogance to win, we are the prisoner completely unaware of our state of imprisonment. When we fight the arrogance, we experience a richer, more complex, and more dynamic existence.
- Reject the Default Setting: We all come with a default setting that places ourselves at the center of the universe and disallows any level of compassion or empathy. Rejecting the default setting breathes new life into our days.
- Find True Freedom: Do not allow yourself to be enslaved by the mimetic worships of your default settings. True freedom is found in choosing how to think and what to think about.
This all leads to a single action item I humbly request you all take:
This week, when you inevitably encounter some situation in which you find yourself defaulting to a state of boredom, annoyance, or misery, pause a moment and consider how else you might choose to perceive the situation.
This simple act of defiance will compound if you let it.
You may find yourself experiencing new and unexpected joy in the banalities of life.
You may find yourself realizing that the water is pretty nice today...