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This Is Water

Mark Mzyk | January 27, 2019

Picture of rain on a window
Photo by Anant Jain

You likely recognize the title of this post. It is the name given to David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech that he gave to Kenyon College in 2005. You might have been exposed to Wallace’s words from this nine minute video that excerpts the speech. Even if you’ve seen this, you should listen to the full, twenty three minute long speech.
It’ll help you remember This Is Water. This Is The Default.
I find myself listening to this speech about once a year. It’s not purposeful on my part. I have the full speech bookmarked in a long YouTube playlist and as I scroll through to find the video I happen to want to watch in that moment, I scroll past This Is Water. Every so often I stop and watch.
If you’ve only ever seen the nine minute video, it combines the two most famous parts of the speech: the story of a fish remarking on this is water to two other fish, and the story of going to a grocery store with all the irritations that brings. Except of course, the tedium of going to the grocery store is the point. It’s in this tedium that we get to make a choice. We can see ourselves as the center of the universe and look at others with disdain. Or we can see that we are one of many and that everyone has a story. We don’t know their story. We don’t know their pain and struggle. We don’t know the ways they are like us. We have a choice where we can think of this, be mindful of this, and see beyond ourselves.
The speech is a reminder to make sure we see the choice in front of us everyday. That we see this choice and consciously take it to see the world in a different way. A compassionate and empathetic way. In doing this, we break the default and lead a better and fuller life.
This is why I end up watching this speech about once a year. Because it’s easy to forget this is water, this is the default. My default is being pulled into social media, into the news, into the thoughts of others. I need this reminder to pull back, refocus, and remind myself this is my water.
It’s especially chilling to listen to this speech now, as in it David Foster Wallace makes note of those who commit suicide. He would commit suicide himself three years after giving this speech. I can’t know what drove him to this, but what I do know is that the choice he talks about us having is a hard one to make day in and day out. Perhaps he came to a point where he just couldn’t make it any more.
What I can do is continually remind myself that this is water and I have still have this choice, even with how hard it is. I won’t make the choice to break from the default every day, but I’ll strive to make it more days than not. And I can also remind you, so you can make your choice.
I invite you to listen to this speech. Listen to it again if you’ve already heard it before.