What Are We Swimming In?
“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?'”
David Foster Wallace
I want to use the popular fish parable above as metaphor for my asking, “Are we aware of the reality we are swimming in?” Wallace’s says: The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.
Readers who know me will understand why I like this story as metaphor for our view of reality. I have been writing about the way we see things and about uncertainty for many years. My writing has included strategies for increased awareness of our blind spots and for paying attention to what we are not paying attention to. However, today the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities we are swimming in apparently are hard to see for many Americans. “What the hell is climate change? What is poverty? What is racial prejudice? What is economic inequality?” Etc.
Although many other Americans aren’t asking these questions, we need an “eyes wide open” collective worldview of the waters of our reality. We are all swimming in the same waters. In order to avoid seeing poverty or racial prejudice, you have to be in a default setting — which could be one of your personal cognitive biases.
Wallace’s point that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about is discouraging. However, the encouraging thing to me is that we are now talking publicly, politically and personally about these realities. The key is how many and who will be willing to listen.
I will confess that the following final thought occurred to me during my writing this blog. Since I am probably older than most of my readers, I could assume to be the older and wiser fish in the parable explaining reality to other swimmers. I actually kind of enjoy that idea, although probably my readers won’t.