About a month ago, I was one of over 4 million people who watched a video on YouTube called, “This is Water.” It was one of the most moving and inspirational things I’ve seen in a long time.
The video begins:
“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 video, created by The Glossary in L.A., brought to life a profound and moving speech by David Foster Wallace. The full speech was delivered as the commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005; the video edited it down to just a few minutes of its core messages.
There are several themes in this video that resonated with me, but the most significant was the reminder that each of us gets to decide what has meaning in life. WE get to choose whether to go through life being irritated by traffic and lines at the grocery store… or adjust our “default setting” to see the world from the perspective of gratitude and empathy.
As David Foster Wallace observed:
“The only thing that’s capital-T True is that YOU get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”
This message reminds us that it’s easy to lose track of what we are swimming in, day in and day out. We forget to ask the question, what has meaning to ME? What the hell is water?
Until, of course, something happens. Like, for example, your child being diagnosed with cancer and then dying two weeks later. That happens, and everything changes.
In the past two years since Julian died, I’ve thought a lot about life and death and meaning. And now, listening to David Foster Wallace’s words, I recognize the capital-T Truth in what he said to those Kenyon College graduates back in 2005:
“I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away…. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death…. 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.”
After spending two years in the category of “bereaved parent,” I have a whole new perspective on this world we are all swimming through. And now I’m ready to make big changes, to take responsibility for my personal “automatic default setting” that the video illustrates so beautifully.
More to come on my “big changes”… but for now, I encourage you to watch the video and see what your heart responds to. What’s your automatic default setting? What do you choose to give meaning? What’s your water?
HOW CAN I WATCH THE VIDEO?
Sadly, David Foster Wallace was as troubled as he was insightful. After a life-long battle with depression, he committed suicide in 2008. The video was created without official permission to use his speech, and after it “went viral” in May 2013, the David Foster Wallace Literary Trust asked The Glossary to remove the video from their channels.
There are petitions trying to get re-posted, but they haven’t been successful yet. After some digging, I found it in an article by AdWeek. Read the AdWeek Article and watch the video, before this link goes away too!