This Is Water
But what the hell is water?
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 Water is a thin book about David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. David Foster Wallace is the author of Infinite Jest. It is the only public talk he ever gave on his views of life. Time magazine ranked the speech among the best commencement speeches ever delivered.  The transcript and original audio can be found at the bottom of the article. 
The Book in Four Sentences
“Learning how to think” is about practicing to be aware and conscious of how we think, instead of thinking in our natural way and default setting.
What the hell is water? Having awareness of those obvious but often ignored things in life gives us different options rather than the default one. We get to decide how we see things mindfully.
The Thing that’s Capital-T True
The main point of the aforementioned fish story is that the most obvious, important things in life are often the ones we ignore and are not aware of. “What the hell is water?” Or something like: “What really makes us happy?”, “What motivates us to check our phone?”, “What leads to our sense of loneliness?“, etc.
One thing the author think we oftentimes take for granted is our self-centeredness. It’s socially repulsive so we rarely think about it. However, it is our default setting, hard-wired into our brain naturally. Just think about it: There’s nothing we experienced that we were not the absolute center of.
Due to our self-centeredness, we can be annoyed easily day in and day out. Spending time in the traffic being disgusted about all the lane-blocking SUV’s, burning their wasteful 40-gallon tanks of gas, and driven by the inconsiderate and aggressive drivers cutting the line all the time.
We can think in different ways. Some of these SUV drivers may have been in horrible car accidents and now have to get an SUV to make them feel safe enough to drive. Or those who cut us off are driven by a father whose child is severely sick and needs to be in the hospital as soon as possible. They are in a more legitimate hurry than I am and it is actually I who is in his way.
Of course, none of these is likely, but there are other options for us to think about. If we are automatically sure that we know what reality is, we are operating on our default setting: self-centeredness.
But if we have a little critical awareness of ourselves and our certainties, we can see different options. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that we get to decide how we’re gonna try to see it.
What to Worship
We get to decide what we try to see. David Foster Wallace then talked about what to believe. He said “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
He argued that a compelling reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type things to worship, such as Jesus Christ or Allah or some set of ethical principles, is that pretty much anything else we worship will eat us alive.
If we worship money and things, we will never feel we have enough.
If we worship body, beauty, and sexual allure, we will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, we will die a million deaths before they finally grieve us.
If we worship our intellect, being seen as smart, we will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
Value of Education
In the book, the author closed with his views on education and freedom. He said a liberal arts education is not so much about filling us up with knowledge as it is about “teaching us how to think.” It is apparently a cliché in commencement speeches, even David Foster Wallace himself knew that, but here he tried to talk about how to think to be free.
“Learning how to think” is about practicing to be aware and conscious of how we think, instead of thinking in our natural way and default setting. That is real freedom. The important kind of freedom needs attention, awareness, and discipline, and being able to truly sacrifice for other people time and again in unsexy ways every day.
That is being educated, and understanding how to think. We get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had.
At the end of the book, he said:
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.”
“This is water.”
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.
When reading the book, two things that resonated with me the most were how to generate different options from non-default settings and what to worship.
A non-default way I have been practicing for a long time is: when someone does something that may upset me, I’ll try to come up with ten excuses, despite reasonable or not, for them to have such behavior and find the most “charitable interpretation” of the person’s intention. 
This is like what David Foster Wallace mentioned. Maybe none of those excuses is likely, but there are options. This sort of stoic way generates different options and those new options always change my reaction.
As to what to worship, initially, I didn’t fully take his words of “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping.” Especially he said pretty much anything we worship other than some sort of god will eat us alive.
However, on second thought, I think here what he tried to refer to is actually just something bigger than us, something invariant. If we worship and pursue something else, we may be like on a treadmill: wanting something, getting it, acclimatizing to the new normal, and starting to want more. If we only worship such a thing, we never get to have true satisfaction.
This is water is a book with only less than 4000 words. If you want to know more about the author, you can watch his biopic The End of the Tour, which is about a five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky and David Foster Wallace.
In the new Disney and Pixar’s movie Soul, they also referenced the “This is water” metaphor. The book can serve as a good supplement reading for the movie.
I first read the book after watching The End of the Tour. In the movie, David Foster Wallace was kind of cynical in an interesting way. Maybe that’s why in the book he can describe the ugliness of those SUV drivers and the day-in-day-out life so vividly.
David Foster Wallace took his own life on 12 September 2008. He mentioned in the book that he thinks most suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. Maybe just like what he said, it is unimaginably hard to stay conscious and alive in the adult world.
Day-in day-out, pause and remind ourselves sometimes: “This is water. But what the hell is water?”
In memory of David Foster Wallace.
Thanks to Everett Key for reading the draft of this.
- Top 10 Commencement Speeches
- This is Water by David Foster Wallace (Full Transcript and Audio)
- The concept of “Charitable” comes from Words that changed our lives from the Podcast Not Overthinking
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