This Is Water

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?”

Thus begins David Foster Wallace‘s commencement speech (transcript) to Kenyon College’s 2005 graduating class. The speech, which rose to fame after Wallace’s passing in 2008, is about simple awareness — awareness of what is real and essential in life.

It’s not the stuff they teach you in school; it’s not the idols of money and fame worshiped by the world; it’s a truth hidden in plain sight all around us that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”

And what is this truth? It’s what you decide to worship. Because, says Wallace, there are no atheists in the trenches of everyday life. You pursue money? That’s your god. You pursue power? That’s your god. Just don’t go through life passively accepting the gods spoon-fed to you by society. Decide what to think about, what to worship, how to live your life.

It was a good speech. I wish Wallace had taken his own advice a couple of times — when he uttered platitudes about climate change and moral relativism, paying homage to the politically correct social gospel du jour, or playing down the moral extent of his speech — but the core of the message is very raw, very true.

Because we all get lost in the cacophony of the world — some of us most of the time — and tend to forget to think about water.

That speech made me think about my family in Italy and my relationship with them. In the past twelve years, since I moved to America, I stayed in touch with them, of course. But not as much as I should have. I did vacations, phone calls, Skype calls, yes. But what about the substance? What about the conversations that really matter? Before it’s too late?

And then it got too late.

My mom passed away in 2004. The innocent, trouble-free, pain-free life I once knew and took for granted changed forever. Never felt such pain. Never expected to feel such pain.

And then my dad passed away two months ago.

And something new happened. Something they don’t teach in you school. Something nobody talks to you about or prepares you for.

I was alone.

For the first time in my life, with both parents gone, I was a skyscraper without foundation.

And you know what? No one can prepare you for that. They can tell you about it, and you will hear it, but you won’t get it. Because we humans can only truly learn by suffering, by living. You meet other people who have lost both parents, and only they can give you that hug, with that look of understanding in their eyes. “We are alone,” they say. We are.

And then, in tears, I got it. That verse by Aeschylus that I had studied in high school:

In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

I didn’t get it then. Completely went over my head. Yes, my brain parsed it. But my soul didn’t get it.

Family is part of water.

The Lord truly gave us something marvelous when He gave us the institution of the family; I got glimpses of it in the past, but the thought really hit home in the last few months, when I saw the love that my brothers, relatives, and friends showed towards my father during his last few days of life; and how everyone sought comfort in one another after his passing, all sharing memories of how my parents had shaped their life.

But death also teaches us to be humble, to cherish every moment as a gift. Going from the sadness of standing in my parents’ room, staring in tears at their empty bed, thinking I would never see them or hear their voices again, to the joy of playing with my young daughters and reading them bedtime stories, really helps putting our life and duties into perspective.

I’m thankful for my parents. They grew up in a time and place whose rules are now foreign to our post-modern generation; My mom was but a child running into bomb shelters during the bombings of World War II in Southern Italy. She grew up as a free spirit trapped in a world where unmarried girls were chaperoned every time they left the house. That was her parents’ way to protect her, to show her love.

Because that’s what parents do; they protect and raise their children, and help them make wise decisions that lead to a full, rewarding life.

Parents sacrifice,  watch you grow up, happy when you behave honorably and respectfully, sad when you let them down and keep your distance, always ready to accept you even when you wound them, always ready to forgive and love.

They prepare you for life, but can’t teach you what can only be learned from experience, what must be lived firsthand to be understood.

They can lead the way by example, and teach you to find truth and love and meaning, to push aside the tyranny of the trivial and live. With ruthless purpose.

This is water.

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