Informator uniwersytecki

numer 003
grudzień / styczeń

Ladies and gentlemen - This is water!

There is one essay which for some people is ‘the evangelion’ of today’s times and is worth coming back to. ‘This is water’ subtitled ‘Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life’ written by the tragically deceased American author David Foster Wallace. You can find its PDF online as well as his speech on Youtube.
Say what?
Wallace begins his essay with a mini story. ‘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?” The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about”, Wallace explains.

Next, he notices the fact that today – ‚it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head.’ ‘For me’ , ‘by me’, ‘through me’ – endless lines of ‘me’ stacked one upon another. This is what he calls a default setting – an inborn, mechanistic ritual of constant ‘clinging to yourself’ and experiencing the world through your own eyes.

To exemplify this, Wallace characterizes an average day when “….. after hard days at work you arrive at a supermarket to get some food. The shop is‘ hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be’ but you can't just get in and out swiftly; you have to wander the cloudy aisles, maneuver your junk cart through all the other tired, rushing people with carts. But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy, plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic…. Our default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about us. 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? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line”.
Life – says Wallace – is about doing work on that. It is like a mental gym. If you mentally jump higher than your default – “you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer.”

Wallace explains that – “the alternative is….. unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing”. The “me”, “myself”, “for me” and “by me”. The superficiality of the sense of fulfilment.

Should we all shrink from embarrassment then? No – let us look around…

“This is water.”

“This is water.”

Piotr Flieger

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