What Is Water? Why Does It Matter?Apr 27, 2022
Have you heard the commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace, called This Is Water? I hadn’t. It isn’t your typical commencement speech filled with hope and inspiration. Instead, it is an in-depth look at the monotony of everyday life. It is all of the things you didn’t know about adulting when you were graduating from college and moving into reality. It is commuting in traffic, standing in line at the grocery store, and all of the other annoyances that stand between you and relaxing on your couch at the end of a long day.
The commencement speech begins with an anecdote about a pair of young fish swimming. They encounter an older fish that says: “Morning boys! How's the water?" The two young fish keep swimming. When they are out of earshot, one of the young fish turns to the other and asks: “What the hell is water?”
As we navigate the struggles of everyday life, some of the things we encounter go completely unnoticed. Like the fish, we can be surrounded by water and simultaneously oblivious to its presence. Our focus is often drawn to one aspect of life or another. And as we are exposed to similar scenarios day in and day out, we go on autopilot. Have you ever driven home from work, pulled into your garage, then wondered how you got there? Autopilot can help conserve precious brain energy, but it can also lead us to lose sight of our environment. It can cause us to miss important details. Autopilot can lead us to forget that we are not the only ones struggling. We are surrounded by other people immersed in their own struggles.
As the speech continues, our attention is directed to everyday occurrences that vie for our attention. Our interpretations of those situations are also examined. It can be challenging to observe our own judgments, just as the fish don’t see the water, despite being constantly surrounded by it. Maybe there is the dude in a sports car that cut you off while driving in traffic, or an older man paying for groceries struggling to count out the exact change in coins, or a young mom yelling at her children, or a middle-aged woman talking loudly on her cell phone while standing in line. We often find ourselves in a position to judge others and how their actions affect us. At face value, these situations can leave us feeling disrespected, wronged, or unseen.
What is missing from these internal thoughts? The context. Is the dude driving crazily because his kid just fell off the monkey bars, and he is meeting his family at the hospital? Did the man paying with coins at the cashier just scrounge up enough money from the couch cushions to pay for this week’s groceries? Is the mom yelling at her children struggling with the recent sudden death of her husband? Is the woman on her cell phone catching up with a friend that was so lonely she would have taken her own life if she hadn’t picked up the phone? Would knowing the context shift how you think about a given situation? If you could see their struggle and feel empathy at the moment, would you respond differently?
As physicians, we are trained to assess the context for our patients. Patients with similar complaints might have completely different underlying explanations. The secret is in the context. Think about two 55-year-old men that present to your office with chest pain. One has an extensive cardiac history that includes multiple stents and cardiac medications. The other recently completed an extensive cardiac workup that was completely unrevealing but admits to significant anxiety surrounding the fact that his father passed away from a massive myocardial infarction at his exact age. Would you treat both of these patients in the same way? Context matters.
So now that we understand the importance of context, several questions arise: How does this apply to me, and why does it matter? The answer is: It depends. Do you like feeling frustrated by other drivers or people paying for groceries with quarters? If the answer is yes, maybe context doesn’t apply to you. If, however, you are interested in considering there might be a different way, then keep reading.
The frustration in the above situations comes when we feel at the effect of a particular circumstance. We feel disempowered by the driver that didn’t see us. Maybe his behavior was intentional, but perhaps it was an accident. Does it matter? Your anger and frustration towards him affects only you. He will drive off into the sunset, largely unaware of your thoughts and feelings towards him. You are the one that suffers. Maybe you decide to chase him down to ensure he knows how his actions affected you. Is that how you want to show up in this world? If the answer is no, there is good news. You can make up whatever story you want about why he chooses to drive the way he does. You get to believe he is racing to the hospital for an emergency. You can literally choose any context that feels empowering. It honestly doesn’t matter. The story you tell yourself about the other person is not the point. The point is that the story introduces possibilities that can help you to find space, empathy, and kindness in a situation that would otherwise be filled with frustration and anger. From empathy, you get to show up exactly as you want in this world. Maybe this exercise will help you find more compassion and empathy towards others. Perhaps it just enables you to avoid road rage. Either way, this is about you becoming the person you want to be.
You might be thinking this sounds ridiculous. I’m just supposed to make up stories about other people so that I can feel better? The simple answer is yes. Providing an empowering context has the power to reveal what is hidden in everyday situations. It puts you in the proverbial driver’s seat so that you can be at the cause of your life rather than at the effect of your life. It allows you to enjoy the water as you swim past the same plastic castle on your way to work every morning.
So many physicians are looking for something different. They might be seeking a new job, a new city, a new side gig, or a new career altogether. The secret to happiness doesn’t come in changing the situation. The secret comes in the context. And, if you want to alter your results, you need to change your context. It might not come naturally, but with a bit of practice, you might just start noticing things you see every day in a completely new way. It may seem a little bizarre at first, but it might be a fun game to try. What have you got to lose other than a little bit of daily frustration and annoyance? Give it a try, and let me know what you think!
How does life occur to you? Can you think of a time when the way you perceived a situation changed how you responded to it? Are you willing to give up some of your daily frustration and annoyance?
Are you interested in creating more balance in your life? I want to invite you to check out my FREE TRAINING. Click here to get: How Busy Physicians Can Stop Trying To Escape Medicine And Start Living Their Best Life Today.
With this training, you will learn about the five most essential techniques physicians need to stop feeling stuck, burned out, and trapped in medicine. You will also learn how to discover what you truly want in life and how to get it!
PS. I get a lot of inspiration from music lyrics. Many people use inspiring quotes (and I do too), but music really speaks to me. I hope you find inspiration in the songs too.
Ani DiFranco - Little Plastic Castle
If you want to read the lyrics, click here.
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