Two young fish are swimming along when they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says:
“Morning, boys. How’s the water?”.
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 humorous analogy that writer David Foster Wallace told at the beginning of his commencement speech to Kenyon College’s graduating class of 2005. Although it is short, it can be unravelled to reveal many important guiding truths regarding adult life.
Much like the younger fish, many of us are not aware of the “water” that surrounds us. Although we live in it, reality is hard to process because it is made up of so many different layers of complexity. To make it easier to live our lives, our brains protect us from being aware of our reality, much like how people are not aware that they live in a simulation in The Matrix.
Even when we are aware that we are swimming in water, we keep asking ourselves “What the hell is water?”. We search desperately for the wise, older fish who can enlighten us – someone who can teach us what water is.
Many of us will be swayed by countless teachers, mentors, gurus, politicians and religious leaders who tell us to follow them to learn what water is. Many of us will firmly believe that we have grown up to become the older, wiser fish, and fight stubbornly against others who have different views on what water is. Some us may even choose to ignore that the water exists at all.
At every stage of our lives, many of us fall in the trap of believing that we have things “figured out”. Teenagers will rebel against adults, thinking that they will reinvent the world. Young adults will believe that now that they are working members of society, they are entitled to their “educated”, “mature” opinions. The middle-aged believe they have been adults long enough that surely they must have gained enough experience and wisdom on the way. And if we don’t feel confident that we know what water is, we seek the answer from those who claim they know it.
In short, we are always searching for the answer, or claim to have the answer. But that is not the lesson to take away from the parable of the fish in water.
It is not the answer that is important, but the question.
It is hubris to think that we can possibly understand how the world works completely within our lifetime. Instead, we should continue questioning what water is. Otherwise, we are just pretending to be enlightened, all the while becoming dimmer as we shut off our ability to learn and see things from a new perspective.
Consider the countless complexities that make up our reality: physical laws of the universe, the historical context, political climate, shifting cultural norms, societal pressures, chaos theory, our connections to other people… Even if you were to make sense of all this, you will never understand the reality that other people live in, as believing in only your reality stops you from being empathic and compassionate. Remember that water is a great environment for fish to live in, but a person would drown if left underwater.
This is why the parable does not tell the story of the older fish teaching the younger fish what water is. Instead, he is asking them how the water is. He is encouraging them to be aware of the context they live in and to keep question it and learning about it, while he himself stays curious as to how other fish experience the water.
So, how’s the water?