The late US author David Foster Wallace told a story in a commencement speech he was asked to give at Kenyon College in the US.
It went something like this: Two young fish are swimming along one morning when an older fish comes along in the opposite direction. “Morning boys. How’s the water?” the older fish says to the younger two. They continue swimming until one looks at the other and says: “What the hell is water?”
The point of the story is that some of the most important and obvious aspects of our everyday realities are the ones that are the most difficult to see.
The speech put this in the context of higher education, giving students the ability to learn how to think – not in the usual way this line is trotted out to undergraduates – the ability to think clearly, analytically, and in a structured manner – but instead to realise that we have a conscious choice regarding how we think.
It underlines how we can choose our reactions to everyday banalities and irritations rather than face them on automatic pilot, and thereby not miss some of the most vital aspects of our day-to-day lives.
Tuning out of the endless static of modern life is something that has become increasingly difficult, not least with the constant stream of media, work and social information available to us through our smartphones. The temptation to look for new emails, or see the latest headline out there about Donald Trump, is constant.
This is especially so with the all-pervasive feeling that the world as we know it is in a precarious state – with war, terrorism, and economic and political uncertainty a facet of everyday life.
Real life is out there
Nevertheless, here we are, living our everyday lives with all of its mundanities.
This is where we make a difference; this is where we live our lives. This is where compassion for a lousy driver can make a difference to your life and theirs by a friendly smile rather than a raised middle finger. This is where a kind word to a colleague can change both your days for the better. This is where resisting another urge to look at your phone, and instead taking a deep breath and looking around you, can make the world seem an infinitely better place.
As Wallace said, remember that “this is water. This is water.”