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the slowdown: Is This Water?

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slowdown podcast

Last month I received a text letting me know a friend of mine had died. He was young, only in his 50s, but had lived life hard. His name was Bill. Bill was a coworker of mine, and four years ago when I moved into a new apartment I invited some people over to break in the space. Bill couldn’t stay long, but he gave me a gift card to celebrate. It was a small, but unnecessarily kind gesture that really stuck out to me. The next year, my good fortune continued and I moved into a house. Because of the timing of things I ended up throwing a housewarming on Canada Day and there was Bill again, helping to welcome the space, bringing with him a dozen donuts and his usually crass sense of humor.

Sometime in 2017 Bill disappeared from work for a while. He tore his bicep and took a leave from work. His health was always up and down. One day, I got a call from him asking if I could come over to his apartment to help him out. In a drunken haze he purchased a new laptop and a 70″ television, and when they delivered the TV he had no way of setting it up considering both its size, his condition, and the fact he was short a functioning arm. I helped him get it all set up, but was sad because—while outwardly happy and gracious—he was badly slurring his words stumbling to a point where he almost fell down a few times. The next year Bill disappeared on another leave, but no one really knew what happened. We figured it had to do with his family, or his health, or any number of other matters which Bill was prone to keeping private.

When I quit that job I started to let a little bit more out about what my intentions were to some friends I’d made in the company. Bill was one of the people I talked to. I told him I had started my master’s program in counseling and was going to work at an alcohol and drug rehab, and that both decisions were driven by my own struggles with addiction and a desire to work with people who needed that kind of help. It was then that Bill let me know his last leave of absence was spent at the very facility I was going to work at.

When I found out that Bill had died I felt a sense of grief, in part knowing that same week would have marked two years of sober for him. The date was on my calendar, but I didn’t so much as send him a text to say congratulations or let him know I was proud of him.

That thought led me to this project, in a way. Cooped up in quarantine I’ve felt a deflated lack of self-worth, particularly tied to an inability to remain “productive” amid everything that’s going on. That’s a problem, and one I’m not alone in experiencing. But thinking about Bill, and how I was proud of the changes he was making in his life—even though he might not have known—helped me feel like I wasn’t seeing my own situation clearly. I thought if I could distill that idea, what with all the swirling events taking place around us, it may be a worthwhile venture to spend some time focusing on those kinds of thoughts using a medium like a podcast. As is the theme of this year, however, things have changed drastically since then.

My story of Bill is unrelated to the idea presented in the audio, but it’s not without connection. Last week I learned another friend died. And yesterday M. and I spent the afternoon at a gathering to support a mutual friend whose mom also died last week. A while back my sister sent me a TED Talk by Johann Hari, and when I finally got around to watching it yesterday I was struck by line that seems serendipitous to where I’m at right now and what this first episode is all about: “we live in a machine that is designed to get us to neglect what is important about life.” In a number of different ways right now, it feels like life is sending messages that this “machine” desperately wants us to avoid hearing.

No doubt, David Foster Wallace wasn’t talking about the acknowledgement and understanding of institutional racism when he gave his Kenyon College commencement address. And Bill wasn’t exactly the most woke guy on the planet, so bringing up that story in context of racial equality brings with it a certain sense of irony. But somehow it’s all tied together.

Last Saturday I attended a march with the friend whose mother died last week, and in a text a few days back that friend wrote me “The last time I talked to her was Saturday before I went to pick you up. She’d told me she was proud of me for going to march.” I have to believe that the same machine that wants us to overlook what’s important is connected to the system that wants us to think we’re alone, that no one’s watching, and that little of what we do can have a greater impact. But even in the face of such pressure, the movement taking shape right now is not the result of remaining silent. And those voices and actions are being noticed, and from them more positive momentum can develop. My main objective right now to keep listening and learning, but it’s in the spirit of continuing positive action despite a machine that is trying to stifle it that I share this episode and the concepts I hope it communicates.

“It’s hard because there is, it is appalling when you see some of these crazy examples of bigotry. And now people coming into explicit white supremacy, and you know white nationalism and things like that. But the thing I’m much more interested in is the kind of whiteness that’s just institutionalized, it’s there, you know, it just structures every day—well here I go—everyday interactions. But also, you know, just patterns and how institutions are set up and all these other kinds of things. Who has what rights, how resources are distributed. Those things are just sort of ingrained with us. They’re invisible, like the water that we’re in. And that’s what I’m more interested in.” –Chenjerai Kumanyika

And that’s where I’m starting at. And where my mind has been for much of the past two weeks. Trying to slow down and listen to those around me who are once again communicating to others what’s so incredibly obvious to themselves. I’ve never felt blind to it–the water–particularly at times when it is impossible not to see. Like, when a city is on fire as Ferguson was, it’s obvious and it’s terrible and it’s shameful and it screams for change. Change, however, has just never been up to me. I can always step out of the situation or the discussion because of who I am. No matter how blurry the line is between silence and passive acceptance, silence has always checked the box because standing on the sidelines has always seemed good enough to keep things the way they were for me personally. So, the question then comes back up: Do I actually see what water is here?

The voice in that first clip is from Chenjerai Kumanyika, who’s a researcher and assistant professor at Rutgers University. It speaks to conditioning. Conditioning that influences how we all dismiss or disregard others because their reality doesn’t align with our own lived experience. And conditioning that says my feelings and my emotions are what matter most. Once again, what are those invisible forces that guide us? Where do they come from?

Not that this situation calls for another white male voice, my own or the one I’m about to share, but when listening to Kumanyika’s words my mind immediate made a connection to this speech from David Foster Wallace. I’ve edited his commencement address, cutting out about half of it, but what follows is immediately relevant to what’s been on the tip of my brain related to race, experience, and the natural slide that’s complacent thinking.

“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…

So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about ‘teaching you how to think.’ If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to bracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.

Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: ‘Look, it’s not like I don’t have actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.’’ And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. ‘Well then you must believe now,’ he says, ‘After all, here you are, alive.’ The atheist just rolls his eyes. ‘No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.’

It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from inside the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there’s the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what ‘teaching me how to think’ is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of you or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV or your monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self…

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience…

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and who and what is really important, if you want to operate on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options…

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along on the fuel of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But, of course, there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty little unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing…

None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. 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.'” -David Foster Wallace

These things are around us everywhere. Invisible scaffolding supporting everything from our political structure to the social contracts among us. In the past I’ve remained quiet and regrettably indifferent to causes I felt I was being supportive of. I didn’t show up. I didn’t add to. But in my mind I felt righteous because I thought that at least I was on the side that recognized the water. And at least I knew where I stood on the issues even if only for myself. But that’s just more conditioning.

There are a lot of questions here, but the questions aren’t enough. Neither is a superficial awareness or a baseline knowledge of what’s “going on” or where I tell myself I stand on the matter. That’s all been proven insufficient. A line I read recently said “a worthy goal for a year is to learn enough about a subject so that you can’t believe how ignorant you were a year earlier.” I really like that. While so much feels so trivial right now that seems like a good way to proceed. By continuing to listen. By correcting that ignorance. And by becoming aware of what exactly all this is and taking action.


the slowdown, Part 1: Is This Water? (you are here)
the slowdown, Part 2: The “Good” White People
the slowdown, Part 3: To the Benefit of Whom?
the slowdown, Part 4: Separate Realities
the slowdown, Part 5: Amusing Myself to Death