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The late author David Foster Wallace's epic 2005 commencement speech opens with a story about three fish:
"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?"
This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story ["thing"] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be.
I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning."
Wallace then delivered a powerful speech that has been circulated widely online, emailed from friend to friend, and published in book form.
But after using the "fish in water" metaphor, he never really went back to answer the important literal question "what is water?"
Really, what is water? And why are we humans so enthralled by it, yet oblivious to its declining health around the world? And why is this question so obvious and important, yet so hard to adequately answer?
"The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death," said Wallace in his closing words to the Kenyon College graduates.
"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."
I wish someone had had the opportunity to offer to David this truth: when you're feeling down, feeling flat, feeling alone, find some water and get in it. Be the water. Be naked, vulnerable, and feel the shame you're carrying. Let it wash off. Move, cry, sink, swim. From there you may find creativity and change.
Then, love and protect your water and get in or near it often. It may just save or create your life. It may save someone you love's life.
I'm not talking about metaphorical water. I'm referring to all of our lakes, creeks, rivers, ponds, bays, oceans, and waterfalls, from Kansas to Arizona, Maine to California.
We'll never know, but a relationship with wild water may have helped David's twenty year struggle with depression, as it has helped countless others battle their afflictions.
In a deep, reflective conversation that included a discussion about writers like David Foster Wallace who had taken their own lives, legendary author Jim Harrison told Outside Magazine's Tom Bissell, “of the 12 or 13 suicides I’ve known, none of them had any interest in nature. In other words, they had no interest in what Rimbaud called ‘the other.’ The otherness, say, of nature.”
They couldn't make, Harrison said, “that jump out of themselves.”
That jump, that surge, that simple, obvious and important thing that being in water can provide.
"I wish you way more than luck," Wallace concluded to the Kenyon College crowd on that hot, dry morning in Ohio.
I wish you water, I'll add. Deep blue water.
And while it may sound like a banal platitude, it is most certainly one that has life or death importance.
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