This is Water

The most obvious things, are usually the ones we pay the least attention to...

Published on January 01, 2019

About 11 minutes read


This is Water is one part of David Foster Wallace's commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College. It has since been adapted as a book in both print and audio formats. In 2013, the multimedia and design studio The Glossary created a short movie, based on the aforementioned speech as a passion project and to be quite honest, I haven't stopped watching it ever since.

This is the short film they created

Do yourself a favor and take 9 minutes out of your life and watch it. You don't need to watch it over and over again if you do not feel like it. Just make sure to take a deep breath, put your cell phone or any other distractions away and try to lose yourself in both the words and the visuals of this short film.

My take on the meaning of This is Water

This is Water is an existential piece, designed to make us think about the things we normally don't think about. It is one of those thought provoking pieces that you can go back to as time goes by and they take on a new meaning, primarily because you have a new set of eyes and ears to see and listen to it. That's one of the reasons why, after all these years, I still go back to watching it from time to time. It serves as a reminder, reminding me to not forget about the important aspects of what makes us all human. To never gloss over the minute details and intricacies of every day life, or to allow the primal, instinctual side of our self, dictate our every thought, desire and course of action.

Noteworthy points / ideas / thoughts

a. It's not about you

Let's get something out of the way first. Almost nothing is about you (or me, or anyone else for that matter). We all exist inside a complex system of intricately woven patterns of events that we are unable to see or clearly understand in its entirety. A system that can be classified (in physics terms), as an entropic one. Things happen and we happen to be there when they do. That's pretty much how things are. We are (just) participants in these events and we have a choice on how they will affect us, whether it is a consious or an unconsious one.

Most people probably never questioned the time when they got together with a loved one. They took it as it was, thinking that, in some way, it was something they deserved. Time goes by and the couple breaks up. This is an event that, more often than not, triggers an "it happened to ME" type of reaction for most people. The essense of it is that the other person probably made a decision about their own life that took them to a diffent direction and that decision had some repercussions on the other persons life. That's pretty much about it. It was not about the first person in the first place, even though they might have played a part in forming that decision. That might be a bit of a difficult piece of information to take in, but if we take our feelings out of the equation things will become a lot clearer, and some people might reach a similar conclusion to the one drawn here.

Like every path in a road that you have never taken before, you do not know where it will lead you. For every end, there is a beginning and for every beginning there is going to be an end down the line. This is the impermanent nature of life. This is also what makes life so beautiful. A break up might feel like the absolute worse thing that could have happened to you, but at the same time, that same event, might lead you to discover yourself in a very meaningful way and maybe somebody that you feel more at home with. Losing your job might seem like a bad thing, but going away from that feeling of false security, might allow you to understand what is truly important to you and gravitate towards it in the future.

One of the foundational teachings of Buddhism is to live in the present moment. That is also one of the cornerstones of Stoic philosophy. It is also a very very logical thing, if we take 2 minutes out of our busy schedule and think about it. The past is gone, we have no idea about what is going to happen in the next minute and the only "real" time there is, is now, this present monent. It's up to everyone of us to decide how we want to spend that time. It is your choice, and yours alone. If you choose to feel frustration and anger because somebody cut you off while driving, that is your choice. The other persons' choice was to cut in traffic and it just happened that in the car behind them was you. You were there, you experienced something, but you were not the protagonist or the main recepient in the event that transpired. It just happened. Good things happen to bad people, bad things happen to good people. That's pretty much how life is, but it is up to you to try to decide how you want to deal with any given life event, regardless of its caliber.

b. It's not just about the highlights

We live in a world that emphasizes the 'highlight' moments of peoples' lives and often completely disregards everything else. We become our Instagram or Facebook feed and people gauge who we are based on our Tinder profile, more that they do by our actual behaviour when they meet us. Nobody talks about the mundane moments, the lonely moments, that lead up to the more 'shareworthy' ones. Nobody talks about the path they had to go through, trying to reach a goal. The struggle, the never-ending practice, trying to take a step forward every day, trying to change throughout the journey. For most people that is not only unimportant, but also something almost frowned upon when spoken of (although in recent times, people have discussed their struggles publicly and that has started to make a difference for the better, creating an outlet for people to express themselves).

There is something that is often overlooked and barely spoken about. A fact that as we become wiser (not necessarily a we grow older), we understand instinctively. Life is inherrently messy. It is a constant neverending grind, starting over each day. It is not a straight line, from point A to point B. It is not a Hollywood movie script that follows certain rules. It can be all kinds of stressful, inconventient and hurtful, but at the same time it can also be comforting and care-free and fun, even at the same time. Throughout all those times, there are a few constants. One of them is the fact that we change while experiencing those events. Change happens throughout those moments, and moreso during the bad ones, as they act as a catalyst, allowing us to enjoy the good moments better and lessen the impact of the bad ones.

I am fascinated by people that take the time to appreciate the course that somebody took to reach where they are now, no matter how "far" that is. These are people that celebrate each other's struggles, supporting them when things are tough and cheering them on as they go on in their course, no matter how hard that journey is. These are not people that are looking for cheap and easy validation, for highlights that mean almost nothing to noone and will be forgotten in less that 30 minutes. These are the people that focus on lasting experiences and on each other, treating people as people and not as statistics.

c. Try compassion for once. The results might surprise both you and the receipient of your actions

For me, one of the most important aspects of this talk, is the importance and dire necessity of compassion in our every day interactions. At any given moment in time, it is nearly impossible to know where people you come across are coming from or what they have going on in their lives. If you try to treat everybody with compassion, the result might actually surprise you (and probably surprise the people you treated nicely too). A kind word can make somebody's day, a smile might make someone feel more relaxed and cheerful and a less frowny face can make somebody feel less apprehensive about being nice to you. Give it a try. Try giving your seat up for somebody that looks they might need it more than you and wish them a 'Good Day' after doing so. Buy the person sitting in line after you a cup of coffee without them knowing after getting your coffee in the morning. Speak a word of encouragement to a cachier at a supermarket that looks like they need it. You really cannot predict what would happen if you do so, but I can say with a certain amount of certainty that people would be happier, even after a small moment of apprehension. This small random act of kindness might have enriched somebody's life far more than you might know and that is also part of why life is so unpredictable and beautiful sometimes.

d. Freedom can be a few thoughts and an every day choice away

How often it is that you hear that people complain about the problems they face in their everyday life? The neverending stream of drama they are experiencing, whether that is in their love life or their work life? "Oh why does this always happen to me?", "I think I'm jinxed and things will never work out for me", etc etc. It's always someboby else's fault and they are not to blame for anything at all. They are simply the receipient of said bad behaviour and ugly circumstance.

I believe that in the Western world, people have a specific set of priorities that (most of the times) defines their desires and their motives for doing things. These priorities are either thrust upon us by our parents or peers or by our social circles. We are taught that we deserve certain things based on how we do in life, how much we achieve, etc. "If I get my college degree, I'm bound to have a managerial job and a lovely wife/husband and live in a beautiful house, just like my parents". While certain things in our lives are in direct correlation with our actions (trying to get your college degree for example), some others are not (finding your wife/husband to be for example). The longer we keep thinking, we are the center of the universe, the longer we will be unhappy about how we perceive events transpiring around us. The more we live inside our set ideas of how things should be in the world, the less we focus on how things are and the more unhappy we become, as those two sets of realities diverge. Real life is what happens in front of our eyes and all around us, not inside our heads, in our dreams and thoughts. Don't get me wrong; I think that dreams are beautiful and very necessary to have. They are the fuel to get us going through tough days. But at the same time, noone should be bound blindly to a dream that lives inside their head. The more we carry our dream, not seeing what the reality is around us, the less able we will be of achieving it and the more hurt we will feel. If we start aknowledging and accepting the reality we live in, no matter how hard it is (and certain people experience very harsh realities), the easier it would be to be happier and work towards our dreams, whatever they might be.

All it takes to get out of the routine of automatic thinking is to step back, take a deep breath and look at things objectively, without any type of negative criticism. Try to observe why things happen and where we stand about them. Try to understand the intention and the reason of why we want to do something or why we might say something. It does take time to do so, and it is a practice of sorts, which means we can never stop trying to objectively understand our thoughts and intentions, but in the end it helps guide us towards the things we truly need the most, not the ones that we thought we did. For me, this is in part what freedom is. The ability to understand what it is we truly need and go after it without bias or external influence.

Epilogue, or a few closing thoughts

I always find something new to add to my train of thoughts after watching this short film and after having experienced life a bit longer. The only things I feel are always prevalent, are the notion of choice and the concious act of compassion. No matter the circumstance or predicament, we can always show compassion to ourselves or somebody else, but only if we choose to do so. In these interesting times we live in, I do believe that even the tiniest act of compassion or some mindful, clear thoughts and subsequent actions can make a huge impact in ourselves and to everyone else around us. That's what I choose to believe. You are more than welcome to choose whatever you think you want to believe and act upon it.