This is Water


In Memory of David Foster Wallace

“But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars— compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.” ~ David Foster Wallace, This is Water

It’s your mind that creates the world. ~ Buddha

What I value about my liberal arts education is the way in which it helped me learn to think.  It made me conscious of the world around me.  It made me question my assumptions. (Buddhism helped with that as well!)

This morning a friend from high school posted a link to this great little film called This is Water, based upon a commencement speech of the same name, given at Kenyon University in 2005 by the late writer, David Foster Wallace.  In it, Foster Wallace explores the frustration and pettiness of much of daily life, and his realization that we must make a conscious decision to choose what the inane realities we experience, mean.  We can choose to see them through the lens of self — as in I am the center of the universe and all I survey is about me — or we can choose to alter the lens and see different possibilities in the reality in which we find ourselves.  The thing is, it is a choice.  It is always a choice.

It is what it is.

Foster Wallace talks about our tendency as human beings to live on “default-setting” choosing to see every indignity, frustration, impediment, or road block as other peoples’ attempts to torture us. Alternatively, he encourages us to see the banal reality in which we live through a sense that everyone is basically doing the best he or she can, given the difficulties and vagaries of his or her particular circumstances.  The line at the bank or the grocery store or the toll bridge truly isn’t there to make us want to scream and run wild through traffic, as though our hair has caught fire.

It just is.

His point is, can we develop the eyes to see life this way?  Can we imbue even the smallest, slightest, or most annoying encounter with grace and meaning?  It is up to us.


I often talk to my students — particularly my business writing students — about the importance of passion, empathy, and meaning in the workplace.  We read Daniel Pink’s books, Drive and A Whole New Mind, as well as Dev Patnaik’s book, Wired to Care.  I encourage them to take Carl Jung’s human metrics personality test (Myers-Briggs) and Glen Rowe’s empathy quotient test to discover things about themselves that they may not consciously know.  We talk about all the years they will spend working, and the role that passion will play in terms of their happiness in life.  Some students are more receptive to this information than others are, but I share it anyway.  Mostly because I wish that some adult had been brutally honest with me and encouraged me to follow my passions earlier in life.  As it is, I didn’t discover teaching & writing — which I consider my calling — until I had waded through a decade and a half of misery, working jobs that paid well, but did little for me in terms of inspiring me or making me feel that what I did mattered.  In the end, that sense of meaning was much more important than the dollar value of my paycheck.  If our work and our lives have meaning, we can deal with what Foster Wallace calls, “the day in and day out” of adult life.

The meaning of life.

Life is not easy.  It is certainly not the glamorized, air-brushed perfection that many associate with ‘reality television’ (not real, by the way) or with the fairy tales we loved as children.  Life is a series of mishaps and messes and beautiful ruins and heartbreaking joy.  It is brutal.  It is tender.  It can make you want to go to bed for a year.  But the water — Foster Wallace’s metaphor for human reality — is always there, whether we are aware of it or not.  We are swimming in a sea of moments.  If we choose to see this world’s madness as a wonderland, we have done ourselves a tremendous favor. We’ve also made the world a better place for everyone else, as we scurry through our days.

Kindness.  A smile.  The patience to deal with disappointment and loss and frustration with gratitude and grace. These mundane acts are the stuff of enlightenment.  They offer proof that we are riding these waves, not swallowing them.

© 2013  Shavawn M. Berry All rights reserved

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