Tuesday, January 22, 2013

ReView of THIS IS WATER: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life by David Foster Wallace

NonFiction / Inspirational / Philosophy - 137 pgs
Little, Brown and Company (first published in 2009)

This book struck my curiosity one day.  So I bough it even though it has 137 pages and it sometimes has less than a paragraph on one page.  For a book that says very little, it actually says quite a lot.  I'm extremely happy that I bought this book.  It's short.  It has a powerful message.  And it's one of those books you must pass on for others to read.

What is the meaning of the title 'This is Water,' is the question I was asking myself when I bought the book.  I bought it mostly because I was interested to know the concept of 'compassion' was related to such a title.  I think I know after reading it, but other things also have become clear as a result of reading it.

David Foster Wallace begins the book with a conversation between a religious individual and an atheist.  Such a conversation has plagued us for many generations.  Why is it important to discuss it?  It probably has to do with the themes and ideas that arise in such a conversation.  The journey of this conversation is to uncover and reveal what to believe in life, how to think about life, and most of all what it all means to us, all.

"But the fact is that religious dogmatists' problem is exactly the same as the story's atheists - arrogance, blind certainty, a closed-mindedness that's like an imprisonment so complete that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up."

What a powerful statement this way to me when I read it.  Most of us, I believe, whether atheist or religious, walk around as prisoners of our own selves.  What kinds of complications does such an existence create for us?  And what is the source of this type of imprisonment?

"Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract thinking instead of simply paying attention to what's going on in front of me.  Instead of paying attention to what's going on inside of me."

That's something I also experienced during my years in college.  I felt like I was going a thousand miles an hour, thinking I was on some great course, and all the while, all of it was destructive to my soul and spirit.  I remember coming out of my college experience feeling relieved.  Since then, I have had one of the best experiences in life, liberated from the imprisonment that David Foster Wallace is trying to translate in this book.

"In the twenty years since my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand these stakes, and to see that the liberal arts cliche about "teaching you how to think" was actually shorthand for a very deep and important truth.  "Learning how to think" really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think."

That is exactly what I have come to realize, as well, after my college years.  When I was in college, I taught myself how to learn, but when I came out of college was when I really taught myself to learn how to think.  David Foster Wallace says that otherwise you are 'totally hosted.'  'Think of the old cliche about the mind being "an excellent servant but a terrible master".'  

'And I submit that this what the real, no-shit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about.  How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out."

Like I said,  in very few words David Foster Wallace manages to grab  your attention and give your goosepumps all at the same time.  He speaks of a phenomena so real, I couldn't help but relate immediately.  This is what happens in real life, every day of our lives.  This is also a theme we often read about in novels as well.  My favorite author, Huraki Murakami, touches on the consequence of such a state of living, revealing suicidal tendencies that we sometimes are oblivious to or even just simply choose to ignore.

'None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death.  The capital T-ruth is about life before death.  It is about making it to thirty, or maybe even fifty, without having to shoot yourself in the head.  It is about the real value of real education, which has nothing to do with grades or degrees and everything to do with simple awareness - awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in pain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over.'

'This is water.'

'Which means yet another cliche is true: Your education really is the job of a lifetime, and it commences - now."

I'd like to finish this review with the one word that started it all.  Compassion.  For it is this sole word that give life to all that is 'water.'  It is compassion (and empathy, too) that allows us to slow down, to be aware, to consider the real truths of life.  It is only through compassion (and empathy, too) that can see the real and essential truths so hidden in plain sight all around us.  It is ability to control how we think and what we think from a higher purpose of living that makes us realize 'This is Water.'

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