This is Water

After enduring one of those vague and pointless meetings at work I asked Google to show me something that could revive my hope for finding meaning in an environment where droning meetings, like the earlier one, are branded as brain-storming sessions and the all seeing eye of the Internet answered me with this. There are two things to note about the page led to by that link. One, the link belongs to the new playground for Maria Popova – yes – the founder of the incredibly useful brain expansion tool that is Brain Pickings. Two, the link leads to a YouTube clip of an eye-opening commencement speech by the late writer David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College back in 2005.

Departing from the ‘what to expect from the future’ speech, a very common template at these occasions, Mr. Wallace uses his most well-known skill – using words to create stories to create revelations – to ask and answer a question that lingers in every thinking person’s mind – “What is I ?” and the related unasked question “What is everything else?”. He answers these questions in the first few minutes with a simple story where a young fish wonders “what the hell is water?”. What comes after is way more than a lesson on how imprisoned we are inside our own minds and, at the same time, how unimaginably limitless we can be when we let our minds be free of constraints. Think YOU. Actually, think I. By I, you mean yourself and, by yourself, you mean everything in the entire, rapidly expanding universe with you in the center.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

We perceive the world around us, create the memories we prefer and fill up the gaps in the never-ending conveyor belt called life events with whatever makes sense all under the illusion of being the one and only entity of any worth in existence. By opening up a little more and empathizing a bit more with all the stimuli that we receive from this world we could then get a real chance to understand who we are and more importantly what we are capable of.

He fills out his entire speech with thoughtful explorations on cliche´s, liberal arts education, tedium of adult life and the way to cope with a really slow clerk at the grocery store check out line. His scenarios are simple and real ones that one could relate to but he also manages to take those feelings of helplessness we experience when we find ourselves in those scenarios, and transforms them into empowering emotions which can be utilized as opportunities to learn and expand. I think that was the lesson he wanted to tell us.

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.”

I am reminded of a George Orwell quote:

To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.

The commencement speech in Mr.Wallace’s own voice is available in two parts: Part 1 & Part 2.

For those of you at work where Youtube is blocked, here is the text version of his speech.

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