This is Water
This guest post was written by Michaela Morgan, Project Coordinator at the NEC/SPUR. She is a 2013 graduate of St. Olaf College.
While I once considered September a month full of possibilities, the chance to meet someone new, to learn something new, I now consider it the “Monday Month” of my adult life. In the first week of September, nothing changes for me, unlike all of the returning college students, excitedly screaming on the streets until 2AM, running around downtown with their shopping bags, and walking to class early in the morning with their backpacks and headphones blaring the latest, trendy music. Something has changed for them. Summer is over. The hope of meeting a cute boy in class, or even learning about the socio-economic changes in Sub-Saharan Africa, have now filled their lives with chance, uncertainty, and possibility.
“This is Water” originates from a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace to Kenyon College’s class of 2005. This speech has since circulated the internet. A video by The Glossary provides a visual representation of the speech, and has reached over 4 million views before it was removed for copyright infringement (link below). “This is Water” acts as a constant check point for me as a person. It helps me empathize, and consider the possibilities that are outside of my automatic, daily routine. David Foster Wallace encourages his audience to rise above the subconscious way of floating through life by not succumbing to these adult “platitudes,” and he hopes we’ll take a moment to think and pay attention to the world around us. Here are some excerpts from his speech:
“A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.”
“Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etc, etc. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decisionabout how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop, because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way, and who are all these people in my way?”
“If I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do – except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic it doesn’t have to be a choice. Thinking this way is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.”
“But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her little child in the checkout line – maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the Motor Vehicles Dept. who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible – it just depends on what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important – if you want to operate on your default setting – then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will 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.”
So, even though my “Monday Month” may be infused with back-to-school madness and with adults just as upset, and annoyed as me, I have the ability to empathize and experience the world’s blandness through a different light. Hopefully, you’ll read David Foster Wallace’s speech, or at least watch The Glossary video. If you do, maybe those loud college kids will cease to anger you while you’re trying to sleep late at night, and instead allow you to vicariously experience the joy of uncertainty and endless possibilities outside of your adult world. Or, maybe instead of staring at that dirty dish your co-worker left unattended, you’ll spend two seconds picking it up and placing it with the other dirty dishes, instead of staring at it for five minutes letting the frustration and annoyance wash over you. Maybe, you’ll be able to remind yourself: this is water.
Watch “This is Water,” The Glossary: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6z5TIFr5XMo