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What’s the Lesson in “This is Water?”

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David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech

Much has been written and debated about the commencement speech delivered to the 2005 Kenyon graduating class by the late author, David Foster Wallace.

The speech starts with a 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?”

I’ve heard that tale before and always enjoy it.

The most thought provoking part of the speech for me, was the following:

“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.

Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

When you put these two concepts side-by-side, (The water story and the thinking) it suggests that we’re paying no attention to experiences that are our norm.

They become the default background noise, an experience that isn’t really an experience at all.

I wondered about my ignored experiences?

Could be be a nice comfortable middle class life, free from violence or terrorism, friends, neighbors, a faithful spouse, healthy kids, clean air to breathe.

Or maybe the miracle of life itself . . .

The complexity of the human body, the nervous system, the heart, the brain, the devastating complexity of it all that I take for granted.

Maybe that’s my water.

Another quote that stirred my attention was this one:

“It is extremely difficult to stay alert & attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your head.”

Foster tells a story of a long day at work and getting stuck in traffic and long lines at the grocery store, and how he’s judging everyone he encounters.

That’s the monologue in his head, or at least a part of it.

I know that monologue well.

More often that not, my inner monologue judges others harshly.

The inconsiderate drivers, the slow shoppers, the dog walkers that don’t bag-it, the telemarketers.

But, it judges me as well.

It’s as if the monologue voice is separate from me, and in an elevated position to judge me.

In addition to judging, my monologue likes to see the worst in any situation: disaster, doom, gloom and misery.

But, every situation has another side if you flip it over.

There is always a perspective that appears positive and hopeful.

So, I’m trying to tell my judging self to flip the experience over and find the good side.

The continuing mystery is . . .

Who is the I that is giving orders to the judge?

That’s at the root of our self consciousness I suppose.

And, how we control that — remains a mystery.

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This is Water: David Foster Wallace’s Classic Commencement Speech Brought to Life

David Foster Wallace’s classic 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College was not well known until after his death. In the video below, this great piece of life advice is given visual accompaniment courtesy of  The Glossary . 

17 May, 2013



David Foster Wallace’s classic 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College was not well known until after his death. In the video below, this great piece of life advice is given visual accompaniment courtesy of  The Glossary . 


Watch here:

Watch the original speech here . 







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