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?”
i wake up on a sunday morning, nothing but silence in my ears, nothing but darkness in my eyes.
and then i remember again, who i am, where i’m from, what yesterday was, what today is supposed to be, and what tomorrow should be like.
i listened to david foster wallace’s 2005 kenyone college commencement speech earlier this week (part 1 and part 2, transcript) and the one thing that really stuck with me was when he talked about the banalities of day to day life, of getting into a routine, of knowing exactly what will happen tomorrow and the day after that. it opened a flood gate of thoughts of why routine and not spontaneity? but it seems to be true that the universe prizes routine over different, order over chaos, that routine is needed for maximize efficiency. but then sometimes you wake up on a sunday morning like this, playing we move lightly on repeat, looking out your window, seeing green trees, and imaginging the tiny dust particles that flicker and shimmer when sunlight reflects off them, decide to wallow in your own ego and misery and you wonder what it’s all about. why do i have to get started on my work today? why am i already looking forward to the future, to tonight when i can sleep, and to next weekend when this one is barely over? is that a sign that the life i’m going through right now isn’t the one i want? that my life now is devoid of purpose?
but what is a life of purpose? what does it mean to feel alive? does it have to be under the stars on the african savannah with the northern lights in the background ? does it have to be new, intimate, breaktaking and awe-inspriring all at the same time? does it have to scenes straight out of movies? does purpose come from goals, from achieving them?
but as i read wallace’s speech again, i realize that the answers were in the speech. i just listened to the problem and not the solution.
Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.
Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me.
Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic 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 centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.
If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. 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. You get to decide what to worship.
And he reintroduces this whole idea of choosing what you want to think about and be aware of using the idea of worship.
Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
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.”
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.
purpose is what you give yourself. no one can tell you how you want to live your life. purpose comes from within. and i need to realize that many people past, present and future don’t even have the time to think about their lives at all. some people are born into lives where they were never allowed to think, plan for themselves but just forced into a whole life of providing and sacrificing. and perhaps choice is paralyzing, strangely enough. then when we are asked what we want, we don’t know what we want and spend too much time trying to answer that question. but move and act we eventually. the difficult part is to remember and remind ourselves why we decided to live this life, and often times the answers can be found again by taking a step back and looking at everything in persepctive. i choose what to pay attention to and how to construct meaning from experience.