As we noted at the beginning of this blog, the whole point is to remind you (and ourselves) that nothing matters, so go ahead and enjoy life! This is, however, easier said than done. Indeed, the novelist David Foster Wallace gave a famous commencement speech at Kenyon College in which he told the following parable:
"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?'"
The point, of course, is that we are all the young fish, constantly swimming around without the slightest inkling of what really surrounds us. Wallace concluded the speech by saying:
"The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness -- awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, 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, day in and day out." (Emphasis added.)
Wallace, as you may know, hung himself last year at the age of 46, a testament to just how difficult it is to remember this incredibly simple fact. However, there are exceptions to the rule. Eastern religions such as Buddhism, for example, have been preaching the non-existence of the self (and defining nirvana as the extinguishment of all desire) for millenia. In the West, where the absurd is still a relatively fringe concept, we have a more difficult slog.
Indeed, we recently read a fascinating column by Tim Kreider, in which he recounts a near-death experience (he was stabbed in the neck) and subsequent epiphany. "After my unsuccessful murder," he says, "I wasn’t unhappy for an entire year." Unfortunately, the euphoria didn't last, and "the same dumb everyday anxieties and frustrations began creeping back. I’d be disgusted to catch myself yelling in traffic, pounding on my computer, lying awake at night wondering what was going to become of me."
Interestingly, Kreider says the experience not only did not give him a permanent sense of contentment, but may have actually exacerbated negative tendencies. "If anything," he says, "it only reinforced the illusion that in the story of my life only supporting characters would die, while I, its protagonist and first-person narrator, would survive."
This is powerful--and somewhat distressing--stuff. In short, Kreider seems to be arguing that while his brush with mortality gave him short-term perspective, it may have made him less aware in the long run. (We don't buy this, by the way--no one who is not aware could have written that column.)
The takeaway, of course, is don't lose sight of the prize--keep reminding yourself "this is water," over, and over, and over again. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, for example, recommends placing something next to your bed to remind yourself to smile each morning as soon as you open your eyes, and to give yourself constant reminders about what you are doing at any given moment (I am taking a shower, I am washing the dishes, etc.) We could not agree more--if you truly live in each moment, worry and regret have a way of simply slipping away.
Finally, we feel compelled to reproduce Kreider's concluding paragraph--a wonderfully eloquent and moving description of the absurd:
"It’s like the revelation I had when I was a kid the first time I ever flew in an airplane: when you break through the cloud cover you realize that above the passing squalls and doldrums there is a realm of eternal sunlight, so keen and brilliant you have to squint against it, a vision to hold onto and take back with you when you descend once more beneath the clouds, under the oppressive, petty jurisdiction of the local weather."
This is water. This is water. This is water.