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  • Writer's pictureDave Balzer

"This Is Water" by David Foster Wallace

Alright, I may be taking you down a little different path than my recent articles, but hang in there...

In the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, it's all too easy to get caught up in trivial stressors... losing sight of the forest for the trees. I fall victim to it all too often. In an attempt to break this cycle, at least once a year I take a deliberate 20-minute pause to revisit David Foster Wallace's renowned commencement speech, "This Is Water." Despite having listened to it numerous times, its relevance and impact continue to resonate with me. Unlike typical graduation speeches, Wallace's words go beyond momentary motivation; they delve into the stark realities of daily life, touching on themes like empathy, mindfulness, humility, consciousness, and compassion.

"How's the water?"

Wallace kickstarts his speech with a thoughtful parable involving two young fish encountering an older one who asks, "How's the water?" The young fish, oblivious to the very element that surrounds them, continue with their swim perplexed by the question. It's a powerful metaphor that sets the stage for David Foster Wallace to bluntly and honestly discuss the challenges of navigating the adult world and the importance of conscious living.

"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 the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually on of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?" "

The Default Mode

The heart of Wallace's message lies in urging listeners to recognize their "default setting" of self-centered thinking that dominates our lives. In a world hyper-focused on stealing our attention, the struggle to balance self-awareness with the demands of daily life is real (side note -- if you're looking for a great book on this topic check out Johann Hari's Stolen Focus). Wallace challenges us to embrace the "really important kind of freedom" that involves awareness, discipline, and genuine care for others in the repetition of our daily existence.

"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."

Choosing How and What to Think

Exercising the freedom to choose what we think about is pivotal, according to Wallace. Piggy-backing off his comments, I remember the statement "we teach students how to think" being paraded around my liberal arts college. I agree with Wallace that this mantra lacks the key ingredient of choice. Learning how to think, in his view, means choosing to take control of our thought processes, and then consciously constructing meaning from our experiences. By paying attention to both our internal and external environments (interoception/exteroception), we open ourselves to alternative perspectives and liberate ourselves from the automatic responses ingrained in our default settings.

"Learning how to think" really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. So, if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options."

The Capital-T Truth

The culmination of David Foster Wallace's thesis comes to the forefront with his statement on the "capital-T Truth" of life, emphasizing that staying conscious and alive in our day-to-day existence is a challenge, but it's a challenge worth undertaking.

"The capital-T Truth is about life before death. 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.” It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive, day in and day out.”

A Call to Action

"This Is Water" serves as a wake-up call for me. I often have moments of cynicism or detachment, and it acts as a reminder to be conscious of the world around me. I urge you to give this speech a listen -- it will be worth the 20 minutes. Each year it challenges me to resist falling back into my default settings and encourages me to embrace a more intentional, fulfilling, and connected lifestyle. An honest reminder to be conscious of the world around you.

"Knowledge is awareness. And your education really is a job of a lifetime." - David Foster Wallace

Thanks for reading!



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