I missed the memo about The Bird, The Water, and The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned on the Internet.
I have a confession…I have a bit of a road rage problem. I don’t follow other motorists menacingly or brandish weapons at them for their driving infractions, but I do something that’s a bit more self-destructive and cowardly…I flip them The Bird, usually super quickly, and under my steering wheel, so really the only person who knows I’ve done it is me. I’m not saying this makes any sense, I’m just saying that this is what I do.
I’ve recently taken stock of this ridiculous behavior and decided I need to stop it. And in my efforts to get a grip, I’m meditating a bit on the message from the simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring words of David Foster Wallace. You guys may recall when this video made the rounds a year or two ago…it’s an abbreviated version of the commencement address that David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005. The title of the address “This Is Water” comes from the little joke used as the opener:
“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?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes ‘What the hell is water?'”
Foster Wallace used the fish joke to illustrate the point “that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.” Foster Wallace goes on to explain that one of these realities is how we are all usually making ourselves the center of what we experience, and in so doing, run the risk of making ourselves miserable and crazy. If I’m the center of the universe, then every bad thing that happens, even the petty inconsequential stuff, is a personal affront. That’s the heartbreaking part. The inspiring part, especially for a newly minted college graduate, I suppose, is that education can empower us to conceive of other possibilities beyond a self-centric universe. And once we’re able to conceive of a universe in which we are not the center, we’re free to let go of all the anger and frustration that comes from thinking the world is out to get us. It’s liberating as hell, but really hard, to keep this in perspective in rush hour traffic.
A more lighthearted variation on this theme came from the incomparable Glennon Doyle Melton over at her blog, Momastery. In describing her experience of feeling angry and out-of-sorts when she observed a seemingly perfect mother at the mall, she described her growing fury as the perfect mom fed her child an avocado. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when Glennon described how she felt that this other mom was doing all of her perfect parenting at her. After mulling over how this kind of thinking has gotten her into hard places of anger, envy, and resentment, Glennon concedes:
“I mean, after five years – I’m ready to consider the possibility that avocado lady might not have even known I was going to be in the food court that day. It’s not likely – but it’s a possibility.”
This did me in…just the folly, the absolute silliness, of going around all day thinking that other people are orchestrating their whole lives around the goal of pissing me off. Glennon blew that up…with an avocado, and to this day, I count it as the most important thing I’ve learned on the internet.
So even as I cope with the endurance trial which is a commute to and from Downtown Los Angeles, I’m trying to be aware of The Water, and recognize that people are not failing to use their turn signals at me. Middle fingers down and memo received.