It’s no secret I’m a fan of David Foster Wallace. The first thing I remember reading by him, shortly before graduating high school, was his Kenyon College commencement speech, commonly known as This is Water. The title is taken from a short parable he tells at the beginning of the speech:
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?”
After discussing the purpose of a liberal arts education is, Wallace returns to his didactic parable to suggest:
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.“This is water.”
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.”
By water, Wallace means the whole of living out our lives, including and especially composed of the “petty, frustrating crap” that we have to deal with during the day-in/day-out experience of living. The standing-in-line and the commuting and the grocery shopping and the bill paying that are certainly not what Instagram would suggest we spend most of life doing, but what in fact are what we spend most of life doing.
Here, technology provides a helpful vista from which we can consider our perspective of the life-experience of others. Social media allows us to shape a self-narrated perspective of life. We all can craft our lives in terms of camera angles, contexts, experiences, and commentary. Which can be really fun, and is something people have always done verbally in small talk through murmured discussions of small things. However, I think the sheer saturation of exposure to so many socially-crafted narratives of life can lead us to forget the water for want of the droplets. Particularly when it comes to the big life-happiness choices, like vocation*.