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Two Fish

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?”. Eventually, one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

— David Foster Wallace

Caveat: DFW led a troubled and troubling life but the larger question becomes where does one separate the kernels of truth in the work from the authorship itself. I’m not in a position to answer that question here, but for more context I recommend this read: The Atlantic.

David Foster Wallace has been a staple of my morning playlist for a long time now (the order goes this, this, this and this — all ripped off of YouTube and added to a custom Spotify playlist). Hell, I’ve even considered getting a fish tattoo because of how much I love this quote/talk, but it looks a little too similar to the Jesus fish you find on the back of every god damn CRV so I thought better of it.

I want to talk today about awareness and tapestry. At it’s core, DFW’s “This Is Water” talk is a harkening back to essentialism before Silicon Valley popularized it. The notion that in the day-to-day grind of human existence it’s all too easy to forget what’s truly important - truly essential. And that we continuously have to pull ourselves back from unconscious patterns of thought and action, reminding ourselves of the rich tapestry we both find ourselves in and continue to weave by virtue of mere existence.

To pause for a moment, what a gift that is?

That by simply existing, something we had no control over, we have the potential to weave an entirely different social and societal tapestry than if we ceased to exist. Every moment of our lives, awake, asleep, eating, shitting, laughing, crying — every moment is altering reality.

Our reality, the reality of those around us, but also our shared reality as a human species. And thinking back to the idea of the Butterfly Effect — where one small change in a complex system has the potential of rippling out to massively divergent outcomes — you never know the impact of one small thought, one small action.

If a butterfly in the Amazon has the potential to cause hurricanes in Western Europe, just think what each of us could do. You have more power than you know.

And at the danger of entering (or staying too long in) “spiritual nonsense” territory, the danger is that we, as a collective, tend to wield this power without realizing it’s potency or respecting it’s potential.

You can bet that if you had the Midas touch you’d be pretty damn careful where your fingers came to rest.

You’d touch nothing but the essentials and, above all else, you’d be conscious of your actions. You might make the “wrong” decisions anyway, as humans are wont to do, but because your actions (or inactions) are reinforced each minute, you’d be forced to reckon with the consequences.

The tightness of the feedback loop leads to continuously refined decision making.

As a principle, the tighter the feedback loop, the easier to refine the decision. So what do we do with something as ambiguous as life, where feedback loops tend to be long - if existent at all - and many times we have no counterfactual to pattern our behavior from?

I believe the only thing we can do is cultivate awareness. Of our actions, of our thoughts. Of our impact. An awareness of our potential and an awareness of ourselves.

An awareness of, as DFW says, “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 again — this is water. This is water.”

Till next time,
Abhi