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?”
This is the opening story given by author David Foster Wallace in a commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005. It’s one of the best commencement addresses you will hear. Here is a link if you want to give it a listen.
The point of this story is that often the most obvious and important realities are often the hardest to see. I have been thinking about this idea a lot lately. For example, what kind of assumptions am I bringing to my daily living because of what I have learned from the culture around me my entire life? What kind of social and cultural constructs have I unknowingly adopted as my own by some strange form of social osmosis. Why do I never ask WHY? Am I swimming around my life like the fish in the story, completely unaware of the context of my environment. Sadly, I think most of the time the answer is yes.
I know this is kind of intangible and sounds like the type of discussion two stoners would have while passing around a joint. But bear with me and let me try some tangible examples of what I mean:
- Why do we retire at the age of 65 and who came up with the idea of retirement anyways?
- Why do I feel like such a slave to the time on a clock?
- Will any of the things I own or want to own bring me more Happiness? Wait . . . I know the answer but I WANT them anyways, why?
- Why do I stress about my kids Standardized test scores? Is there any real correlation to those scores and anything else of importance later in their life?
- Why do I feel compelled to try to maintain a pace of life that is completely overwhelming most of the time?
I could go on for pages with this line of questioning. My point is that there are so many things going on outside of our awareness that frame how we experience our life, and I think it would be helpful to every now and again ponder why we believe certain things or are compelled to act a certain way. Until we have enough awareness to even ask why we don’t have any other choice but to buy into whatever the culture, our family, our church or our peers tell us.
But here is the secret . . .
What our culture teaches is us is often not as well thought out as we would hope to believe. What we accept is conventional wisdom is very often just the result of a confluence of random historical events and agendas. If those cultural conventions stick around long enough we forget to notice them, much less challenge or question them. We swim around until one day someone makes an observation like “How’s the Water?” and one of two things happen: 1) We ignore the question and continue on our way or 2) We begin to notice and wonder and not just assume that everything our culture values and venerates is worth valuing and venerating. And some of the things it doesn’t even notice, maybe are worth talking about.