The View from My Section: Failing to See What’s Right in Front of You

As we enter into year two thousand seventeen, I wanted to pass along some words of wisdom I came upon recently that might help reshape your view for the New Year.

My son, knowing by now that I like these types of things, had me watch a YouTube video entitled “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace, an American novelist and professor of English and creative writing, who died in 2008 at the age of 46. It recounts a commencement speech he once gave to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College, located in Gambier, Ohio. The opening lines capture their attention when he states, “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 eventually one of them looks over at the other and says, ‘What the (heck) is water?”

The point of the speech is not unlike similar points made by authors Malcolm Gladwell and Eckhart Tolle, in bringing attention to how we live each day in a world full of personal stories that we never understand or realize, because we’re so focused on ourselves. David imparts to these young graduates that a large part of life consists, quite simply, of “routine, boredom and frustration.” Specifically, he uses this example: after making it through a typical workday, you must fight the rush-hour traffic and the crowds at the local grocery store, getting last-minute dinner items and necessities, before safely arriving home to enjoy the rest of your evening.

The essence of this piece, in my opinion, is that we tend to live our lives in a bubble, so to speak, only seeing things in the way they affect our world in particular. However, if we simply looked closer with a more conscious state of mind, we would realize those other drivers stuck in the same rush-hour traffic have their own personal stories occurring simultaneously to ours. This approach also applies to the patrons in the grocery store checkout line ahead of us, and the cashier, who as David explains, is at the end of a long day, only to have to finish it off with a crowd of frustrated, tired customers just wanting her to hurry up so they can “leave already.”

Each one has a story. Each one has his or her own problems, history, challenges, questions that need answers, issues unresolved, and so on. Each one living their own lives in that instance; many feeling the same frustration and urge to continue as quickly as possible, so they can get back to their usual routine.

The problem occurs when we don’t take the opportunity to stop and appreciate this phenomenon. When we get so lost in ourselves, our own personal world and space, that we fail to realize we’re not, as David says, “The center of the universe.” When this happens, it only serves to increase our frustration as we struggle to control and restrict our emotions at the moment. However, perhaps we should consider pausing to take notice of others, and imagining our ideas of what they might be thinking and feeling and what their personal stories might consist of. Seeing the world in this light allows us to garner a more positive perspective and could reduce our stress level. We would then be able to pass the time in a constructive way that doesn’t impart negative emotions that tend to build up, only to be released later on when it’s not productive or appropriate.

In other words, he advises the graduates, life is not always exciting and adventurous; on the contrary, often it’s just repetitive and mundane. It’s what you make of those moments that determine how your day ultimately ends up. Words I’m sure they never expected to hear at commencement. However, valuable advice, nonetheless, that I’m betting they will remember for years to come.

So, think of David the next time you’re waiting in line, wherever you are; his words just may bring you a little comfort and help you pass the time more easily.