There is trauma and brutality all around us, and sometimes we don't want to see it because we feel we have no power to change it. But the possibility of change is built upon a foundation of seeing. We can't change what we can't see. Those who wish to build walls win whenever decent people build walls around themselves, walls to keep out pain, empathy, and compassion (walls that only trap us inside and then topple upon us).
So often, we fail to see what's right in front of us, because we're easily lost in our thoughts, our desires, and our endless need for control. Those who fail to see, who struggle to be present, are often called busy or distracted or realistic or cynical, while those who try to see the fullness of each moment, and fully inhabit it, are deemed naive or idealistic or new age weirdos. The key point I wish to make here is that we always have the choice to see or not to see, to be fully present or not. And not seeing, not being present are choices too many of us are making these days. Those choices have a cost, basically defining whether we are awake and alive, humane to each other or not.. Without seeing first, there can be no compassion or change, within ourselves or in the world. We are increasingly living in the land of the blind.
I recently listened to the late novelist David Foster Wallace's beautiful, profoundly challenging 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, which he titled "This is Water" (link to audio). Wallace opened the speech with the tale of two young fish swimming past an older fish. The older fish says, in passing, "I hope you're enjoying the water." As the two younger fish swim away, one of them asks the other, "What the hell is water?"
Wallace means that so often we simply fail to see what's all around us. We choose being lost in our ego-centrism. We focus only on our needs, building fences around ourselves (literally and figuratively) and then refusing to see others as anything other than "people or things that get in our way," people who are stupid and less than and fully deserving of our scorn, as we (naturally) put ourselves at the center of the universe, basking in ego.
Wallace tells the Kenyon College graduates to expect adult life to be boring and potentially soul-deadening. He describes a hypothetical person going into a busy supermarket after working all day. Having spent ten minutes looking for parking and being stuck in traffic for an hour, the person is crowded in and stressed out on all sides -- by long lines and lame muzak and bad supermarket lighting, not to mention crappy service. As Wallace says, we can choose to roll our eyes and condemn the utter stupidity of these mundane activities of adult life (actually, most of adult life is made up of mundane activities), or we can choose to open our eyes and be fully present in a way that sees beyond our own narrow, short-term needs and may allow us to connect through compassion.
As Wallace tells the graduates, "I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do." Or you could choose to deaden your soul, your heart, blind your eyes to the suffering of others -- and think they are the stupid ones, not you.
This is water. We all swim in it, whether we want to recognize it or not. I wanted to share 10 simple (not simple) ideas in the spirit of "this is water," which you can dismiss or embrace (or something in between) as you wish:
1. We don't need to like or embrace change, but it's a basic fact of all human existence. #change #agility
2. We can never stop growing and #learning. It's okay to be afraid, but it's not okay to stop growing.
3. You build trust by trusting (and caring for) others first. Nobody will ever care about you unless they first sense you care about them. #engage #trust #GiveAShit
4. No matter what you do or where you are, pursue your own curiosity. Be connected to the world, engage and ask questions. #SeekMeaning
5. We have more in common than we know, though we may foolishly choose division rather than community. Don't be afraid to scratch below the surface. #One #InclusionMatters
6. Understand your own contribution before you think about shifting blame or pointing fingers at others. Tend to your own bullshit before pointing out that of others. #responsibility #forgiveness #learning
7. You can never build a life, a community, a family, a career, or a company without first taking care of yourself. Broken people have a hard time fixing anything or anyone. #self-care #CareForOthers
8. You have the potential to be amazing (and horrible), to be generous (and self-centered), to love (and to hate), to be a visionary (and fail to see the elephant in the room), to be strong (and vulnerable at the same time). As poet Walt Whitman once wrote, "Do I contradict myself? So I contradict myself. I am large and contain multitude." #self-awareness #humility #forgiveness
9. Be you, always and only. Seek to understand who YOU are -- and give space to others to do the same. You want to dismiss this idea as soft or vague or unattainable, but nothing is more urgent right now than discovering who you are. #seek
10. This is water, whether you choose to recognize it or not. We are all in this wold of suffering, and no fence or wall can save us from suffering (and joy and love). #humanity #wellness