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?”
David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College commencement speech, 2005. Quoted by Zadie Smith in “Brief Interviews with Hideous Men: The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace,” in Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays
(Note: Smith would hate my using this quote out of context and presenting Wallace as a “dispenser of convenient pearls of wisdom;” she says that he was “the opposite of an aphorist.” Nevertheless, her beautiful elegy to Wallace is full of such pearls, and this one is merely my favourite.)
Foster concludes the speech by elucidating:
…[T]he real value of a real education…has nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water. This is water.” It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.
Image by barunpatro