“This Is Water”: Finding Empathy in the Banalities of Daily Living

July 17, 2020

I was first introduced to David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” in a Language and Composition class. Our textbook was full of examples of rhetoric, categorized by topic. “This is Water” was originally a Commencement speech given at Kenyon College in 2005. A shortened version was transcribed in my textbook which I had to analyze and write about for my class. In reading DFW’s words I found a perspective that resonated with me and one that the world is often starved of. The speech opens with an anecdote about fish swimming in the ocean. Two young fish are asked by an older fish, “How’s the water?” and one young fish turns to the other and says, “what the hell is water?” Wallace uses this story to point out that often, like fish in the ocean, we’re not aware of what surrounds us. As humans each of us are predisposed to be self-centered, because our own thoughts and needs come to us much more urgently than anyone else’s. In the tedium and banality of “day-in, day-out” life we begin to see the strangers around us in traffic or at the grocery store as obstacles and annoyances rather than recognizing them as people whose reality is just as vivid and important as our own, with triumphs and tragedies of similar magnitude.

My favorite part of the speech is DFW’s perspective on freedom. While there are many ways to feel “free” (money, power, success, beauty, etc.), “the really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline and effort, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad, petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.” It’s easy to submit to our “default setting” (DFW), unknowingly considering ourselves to be the center of the universe, “lords of our own tiny skull sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation”. Our kingdoms do need some of our attention, you do need to focus on your own needs and ambitions. But to see the “water” around you as an annoyance or not to see it all, to forget about the billions of other mind kingdoms walking around, perhaps anxiety ridden kingdoms or dyslexic ones, maybe some are very similar to your own, is to miss out on connection that is uniquely human and beautiful.

I find it crucial to remember that the people wrapping my cheeseburger or standing in front of me in the self-checkout line or stopped next to me at a light, all have dreams and fears and insecurities and pains and joys, and maybe they’re battling mental illness or training for an Iron Man or their favorite color is orange like mine or they’ve just found out that they’re pregnant or they’re struggling to learn English. The point is that none of us are alone on this planet, and sometimes it just takes getting out of our own heads and looking at the water.