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How’s the water?

| Wednesday, August 24, 2016

David Foster Wallace’s internet-immortalized commencement speech “This is Water” delivers his thoughts on living a compassionate life by beginning with a conversation between three fish. It goes like this: There are two young fish swimming along, and they happen to go past an older fish swimming the other way who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” They continue until one of the younger fish eventually looks at the other and asks, “What the hell is water?”

The point of the fish story is that the most ubiquitous realities are the ones hidden in plain sight. True education, Foster argues, is the ability to decide to switch out of “the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.” A compassionate life is about simple awareness, it’s about realizing this automatic way of thinking is like water to fish.

Foster dispenses a hard Capital-T truth: the world will not discourage us from this default-setting of “me, me, me.” Conversely, we seem hard-wired to think this way — it might just be our natural mode. We are talking about universals here. But the fish tale can be stretched even further to the particular. It’s a story about environments, and about our ignorance to our specific ones.

The easiest thing in the world is to think is that everyone moves through the world in the same way I do and that my desires and immediate needs are tantamount to those which all policy and rhetoric should prioritize. In the same way the fish forget the water, we also struggle to remember the specific kind of natural and social contingencies we travel the world with. Similar fish swim in similar water, people who are like us are usually the ones we surround ourselves with. Few of us have any clue what belonging to a different community, race, income bracket or social class is like. The times we do think about this “other” water it’s often motivated by fear and insecurities, rather than by an impulse to listen before judging and a genuine desire to understand.

If we extend the metaphor to a particular environment, water becomes the gradually-denser veil of familiarity — subconscious biases, assumptions, unchallenged stereotypes, commonplaces and preconceived ideas — that blinds us to what is under our nose. It’s synergic: As we develop from our environment, our environment is absorbed into us. When everything becomes so well-known, the obvious is concealed. The sociological consequences of this should not be overlooked.

Privileged groups are most likely quick to dismiss problems that don’t affect them as non-issues, not because they are fundamentally unjust and harsh people who wish to maintain the status quo for their own benefit, but because of something else. Maybe it’s because truth becomes defined by degrees of acquaintance when you are operating on the automatic and unconscious belief that your experiences with authority, institutions of power and social systems are the one and only true metric. It’s the natural thing to do.  However, it comes at a heavy social cost; we begin to work on faulty premises, drawing disastrous conclusions. The logic unfolds as follows: because I was able to accomplish Y, everyone is also in the position to accomplish Y. Because I have never experienced problem X, problem X does not exist.

This isn’t a long-winded way of forcing you to apologize for your earned or unearned privileges; it isn’t about guilt or shame … or even privilege. But it is about the “simple awareness” Foster emphasizes, to keep reminding ourselves, “This is water, this is water.” To step back just for a second and imagine living a different day-to-day reality, navigating the world as someone other than ourselves. Always entertain the possibility that you are wrong — the truth is more of an ongoing dialogue than a set-in-stone soliloquy.

The seams in our social, political and economic landscape have gone from bursting to ruptured, and we are routinely being presented with radically different portraits of our country’s current situation. A tale of two cities rarely has a happy ending, and that is why we need empathy more than ever. Empathy, unlike its more superficial sister sympathy, requires the ability to think outside of our fishbowl. It takes will and mental effort to choose to recognize, and as Wallace suggests, that’s the purpose of true education. So friends, how’s the water?

Natasha Reifenberg is in her junior year at Notre Dame and studies philosophy; her plans to do something practical with her major include opening up a Philosophy Shop and “making it” as an actress in LA. Please direct all dank memes to [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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