This is Water

And so there’s Don Gately up at the podium at the Tough Shit But You Still Can’t Drink group spilling his early recovery guts about AA’s third step and specifically opining about his lack of any sort of clue (much less a large economy-size clue) as to the nature or even the existence of this personal Higher Power that AA has recommended he pray to. But pray he does. Morning and night, Don Gately ritualistically hits his knees as suggested, praying and meditating daily but still feeling as though he’s being denied access to the “Big spiritual Picture.” Despite his daily practice, Gately, as he admits to the TSBYSCD group, feels Nothing.

He says when he tries to pray he gets this like image in his mind’s eye of the brainwaves or whatever of his prayers going out and out, with nothing to stop them, going, going, radiating out into like space and outliving him and still going and never hitting Anything out there, much less Something with an ear. Much much less Something with an ear that could possibly give a rat’s ass.

And of course, upon revealing what he sees as a total deficiency on his part, this lack of spiritual understanding, this source of shame for Gately, he is roundly applauded and lauded and told to “for God’s sake Keep Coming.” After the meeting, Gately is surrounded by sober bikers, of which the TSBYSCD group appears to him to be mostly comprised of and about whom Gately “imagines these people polishing the hell out of their leather and like playing a lot of really precise pool.” And one of these is a biker named Robert F. (or Bob Death, according to the lapel of his leather vest), who asks Gately if he’s heard the one about the fish:

This wise old whiskery fish swims up to three young fish and goes, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ and swims away; and the three young fish watch him swim away and look at each other and go, ‘What the fuck is water?’ and swim away.

And the first time I read this, it about blew my mind, because I recalled Wallace having kicked off his 2005 Kenyon commencement speech with this tale, a speech in which Wallace reminds the graduating Kenyon students that they are able to choose what to think about, day in and day out, and he cautions these graduating Kenyon students to be conscious of the choices they make with their thinking, “because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

Said another way, and with direct reference to recovering addict Don Gately, recovery (like life) is an inside job. The exact same circumstances (i.e.: the day-in, day-out routine drudgery Wallace illustrates in his Kenyon speech) can be perceived utterly differently by two individuals, one operating on a default setting of unconscious self-centeredness and the other consciously choosing how to think about circumstances and people who otherwise might seem to be obstacles in a universe that revolves around the thinker (See also: Louis CK’s bit about smart phones being a miracle).

Gately doesn’t see it because, as the fish parable implies, sometimes “the most obvious important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see,” but in his twice-daily practice of hitting his knees he is exercising honesty, humility, and gratitude; he is becoming other-centric in his thought; and he is slowly altering his world from the inside out. He doesn’t see it, but the TSBYSCD bikers see it in Gately, which is why they applaud him and tell him to

Keep coming back.

This is Water - David Foster Wallace

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10 thoughts on “This is Water”

  1. A very good book about what/how we think – and that default mode is something I read before IJ and it, the recommendation, is non-fiction: Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. Highly recommend.

  2. Contrast the warm, caring reception Gately receives at the AA meeting with Poor Tony Krause’s situation back on p. 301. “His entire set of interpersonal associations consisted of persons who did not care about him plus persons who wished him harm.” That sentence is so rough. It’s pretty evident which one of these characters has entered an environment that is conducive to recovery.

  3. That “What is water?” showed up here was a little devastating for me because I really never liked the “What is water?” speech and associate it with a different, softer David Foster Wallace than the genre busting badass I thought I’d found in the 1990s. That “What is water?” means both that I misjudged Wallace twice and that I had completely forgotten it was even in IJ after my first read and so had spent years making a totally illegitimate criticism.

    Facts, man. They can just ruin ya.

    1. Thanks, Rob. How’d you like to explain the term “cheese-easement” (page 443) to me? I should probably get off my ass and jump into the Reddit forums with this question, but as long as I’ve got your attention… :)

          1. Wow, I never knew such a thing (the IJ Wiki) existed. Oh noooooooo — now I have to look through it, page by page. But maybe not until IW is over…
            By the way, the term “cheese-easement” in IJ can also be used for someone who eats cheese (i.e. “rats out”) for an exemplary reason (to save the planet, etc.), or someone who believes that s/he is doing so.

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