David Foster Wallace began his famous Kenyon Commencement address with a story about an old fish swimming by two younger fish and asking them, “how’s the water?”

They swim on for a bit before one turns to the other and asks, “what the hell is water?”

Wallace says that “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.”

But then Wallace goes on to explore the meaning we bring to the world around us. He tells a story of how a religious man and an atheist see the exact same situation differently and – unlike so many people who tell such stories – Wallace manages not to take sides on who is right – but points to how so many of us are imprisoned by our assumptions and certainties.

The things we are sure of are often wrong.

He points to our experience where we are the center of our own universe.

It takes work to not interpret everything through the lens of self.

The other day I went to see Kim’s cousins newborn son. The baby was happy, healthy, and beautiful and before I knew it hours had gone by. I sat and talked to her and her sister and mom. Her husband had come home from work and sat and talked with us.

It’s hard to describe how easy it is to talk to that family. How you are lifted out of self. They tell stories about themselves and of other people. They share thoughts of little every-day occurrences that often tie seamlessly to bigger themes.

We talked about a friend of mine who is working at the same place as two of them. I told a story of his and the mom nodded. She’d had that exact same reaction to patients at the hospital as he had. And yet, she said, she reminds herself that she doesn’t know what sort of a day that person is having.

We don’t know the context of the person we encounter.

We don’t see the water.

Later in his speech Wallace talks about that part of our lives where we are in a crowded grocery story or driving in traffic. This is not a single occurrence. This drudgery and frustration becomes part of our lives.

If you are the center of your world then you see those people taking too much time choosing an item ahead of you or the people who can’t get their groceries onto the checkout belt fast enough or the person running the register who needs a price check… you see all of these people as just getting in your way.

This is our default. We are the center of the world.

Maybe the person who cut us off isn’t the jerk. Maybe they have needs or circumstances that we just don’t understand.

Maybe they are a jerk.

Maybe they aren’t.

We just don’t know.

Maybe most of them are jerks. But you lose when you look at the world that way.

Not that you should excuse bad behavior. But you get to decide how you see the world. And how you see the world changes how you feel about the world.

He returns to faith and belief. He cautions that what we worship – money, power, intellect, beauty – whatever it is will eat us alive.

We live in a context and build our own demons.

We don’t really know the day that someone else is having.

We don’t really know the context of the world we’re entering when we interact with them.

They seem happy. They seem confident. They seem …

Kim used to say that about celebrities, “he seems so nice.”

I’d smile. I didn’t even challenge her any more. Maybe she was seeing the water that I was missing. I used to make fun of her for that but maybe I was wrong. She was seeing the world she wanted to see. She had no reason to think the celebrity wasn’t nice.

A woman I don’t really know posted something the other day that shook me. I always thought she was happy and confident – and maybe she is. But she posted this.

“Use me up, if you will. But understand that once I’m used up, I’m used up. I’m done. By the same token, I understand that I’ve used up some of the people who most loved me, and they have nothing left for me, and that’s my fault. I’m sorry about that. But I understand that in order to love them. I need to leave them alone.”


There’s a story there.

I don’t live anywhere near her but I’m sure there are people in front of me at the grocery store or driving in traffic next to me who are having that sort of a day.

The way I treat them or talk to them can tip them in either direction.

I can’t control how they react to how I treat them. They may be annoyed by a friendly wave or a kind word. I can’t help that. But I can hand them that item they can’t quite reach. I can let them in to my lane even though they were in the wrong lane to turn left.

I can’t know their context but we’re all swimming in the same water.

I can try to notice the water.


Published in: on April 29, 2017 at 7:36 am  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Very nice post. I consciously try to notice “the water” when driving. But I never extended it to a grocery store. I need to work on that.

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