This Is Water

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I was shuffling through some papers yesterday and came across a copy of David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech at Kenyon College. If it’s new to you, I think it’s well worth the 20 minutes to read or watch it. Especially this week.

Like many commencement speeches, it starts off with a silly story.

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?”

The fish are oblivious to one of the most obvious facts about their reality–to the water that literally surrounds them. DFW’s point is that we’re no different. Sometimes the most glaring truths are ones that are the most difficult for us to see.

These past few weeks, I’ve honestly felt a little scared. But I’ve also been so focused on the news, buying groceries, and staying on top of the next data-filled tweet that I haven’t stopped to really see what’s going on inside me and around me.

I don’t feel like I’m alone in that.

This speech helped me to break out of my default programming just a little, and recenter on things that I choose to think are important.

Default Settings

Our default setting is the way we’re hard-wired to live our day-in day-out lives. It’s a heads down, one-foot-in-front-of the other programming that doesn’t promote taking time to pause and self-reflect, or even question our thinking about ourselves or others.

We have these default settings because daily life can be really hard. Even before the events of the last couple of weeks, days were full of commuting, child-care, health problems–the list goes on.

But these settings are not good for us. We can easily go through life without really choosing what we think about, just constantly reacting with our default programming. I think DFW’s point on the whole matter is that this is no way for us to truly live.

Freedom Through Education

The way to shake us out of our trance is through gaining an education. Since this is a commencement speech, DFW talks about how this happens at a University, but I think it can happen in many places–on a job, through a friendship or new relationship, or even as the result of an impactful event or experience.

An education is not about increasing our capacity to think. It’s about teaching us how and what to think about. It gives us freedom over our thoughts, and an awareness of ourselves and the world around us.

Most importantly, it allows us to decide how to pull meaning from our experience. This is freedom. And many people don’t have it.

There are other side-effects from having this freedom. We can choose to be less arrogant and less self-centered. We can trade being a “lord of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms”, for viewing those around us in a new light. New-found awareness can also lead us to realize how often we’re wrong about things we once thought were certain. Ultimately there’s a humility that can begin to grow if we are free to control our thoughts.

What Will you Worship

With this freedom of thought, we can even change who or what we worship. DFW argues that everyone worships something.

Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

Money, power, intelligence, or beauty are all aims that can “eat us alive”. I don’t think this is new or even controversial advice. But DFW’s most critical point is that most people don’t realize that they worship these things. Objects of worship are packaged up deep inside our “default settings”.

Freedom of thought means we can realize what it is we worship, and we can decide to worship something else. This doesn’t mean that we need to worship a god per se. But for me, I’m choosing to worship the importance of each person around me. I hope this specific kind of worship leads to more compassion, willingness to sacrifice, and an altering of that lens by which I see the world.

The point is for the free, you can choose. So make a conscious choice. And choose wisely.


This simple awareness–that we have the freedom to control our thoughts, to find meaning from our experience, and to worship what we choose–is so obvious, that you might ask yourself so what?

DFW can explain that much more eloquently than I can:

In the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

And so (speaking to me most of all) be aware, choose how to think, and worship consciously and wisely.

And of course always remember, “This is Water”.