Practical Philosophy

This is Water, This is Water

I’ve got something to tell you: you are living your life right now. Life is this thing constantly (and often without our noticing) unfolding in moments of banality as well as profundity and wonder. There isn’t some place or time when we arrive and suddenly discover what living is. It won’t suddenly feel perfect and pristine and flawless just like you’ve always dreamed “living” would be.

You are living right now the beauty, miracle, and drudgery of your life. The thing that artists glorify, spiritual traditions hallow, and the dying regretfully wish goodbye is this thing we’ve been in all along. The mythical magical thing that is the beauty of life is the water we’re swimming in. This is water, this is water.

That’s a reference to a story you’ve probably heard before. If you’ve not, here it is: two young fish are swimming along. They cross paths with an older fish who says, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” The two fish keep swimming a ways, and then one stops and says to the other: “What the hell is water!?”

Or there’s an old Far Side cartoon. Three cows in a field, when suddenly one stops, pauses, and exclaims “Hey, wait a minute! This is grass! We’ve been eating grass!”

What these vignettes are pointing to is the thing we started with. There’s no magical place or time at which we arrive. There is no magical point where everything shifts and we’ll finally be clear and perfect and blissful and able to say “now this is living.” This living thing is instead going on all the time. It’s right here, flowing on while we’re too busy to notice.

To really live life, you must remember that that’s what you’re doing. You’re doing it now. You’ll be doing it tomorrow when you pick your daughter up from soccer practice. You were doing it last week when you walked into the monthly meeting you dread. And two years ago when your father was in the midst of that health scare. And on that idle Tuesday of your school days when you just hoped the teacher wasn’t going to call on you. The banalities of life are, if seen clearly, filled with profound, awe-inspiring magic. When you’re distracted, they’ll all just pass you by.

I was inspired to write this by remembering my favorite speech of David Foster Wallace’s life, his commencement address as Kenyon. So it’s fitting, I think, that I give the late man the final word:

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating 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 pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

american society, religion, ruminations

On Missionaries, Religion, and the Police

This Saturday, two white men in white shirts with holy books in their hands rang my doorbell. I didn’t answer.

I assumed, for lack of a better explanation, that they were missionaries. I wasn’t expecting anyone to ring, and these certainly weren’t men I knew.

At first I thought nothing of not answering. Then I felt bad for having done this. And then, I thought about it some more and decided I had no reason to feel bad for my actions.

My rationalization was this: these men probably had one goal in mind: to share God’s love with me. Maybe they’d just want to tell me who they were, why they were at my door, and how to get to the nearest place of worship if I ever felt the need. That’s the best I can think that it would have gone.

Possibly they’d offer me a book. One that said The Holy Bible on the front. Maybe it would be a Book of Mormon. I can’t tell what their denomination was, having not spoken with them.

Maybe they’d want me to tell them about my relationship with God. Talk about prying!?

But it also made me curious about what they wouldn’t say. They probably wouldn’t have said, “Hello, I’d like to have an earnest discussion with you about God and spirituality.”

Even less likely, they could have asked what I thought of their religion. Why I though that. And then corrected any misconceptions I had and gone on their way.

I find it interesting that never having willingly undertaken this interaction I already think I know how it would go. I also can’t shake the feeling of disappointment that I may well be right.

Wouldn’t it be a trip to have a man knock on your door and, when you open it, say, “Hello, I was wondering what you could teach me. I think you can teach me something, what’ll it be?”

But even as I say that, I recognize another fact. That after that man rang the doorbell, I’d probably call the police.