This Is Water

In his seminal commencement address to the Kenyon College class of 2005, David Foster Wallace told the story of two fish, one of which had never heard of “water” before. His friend replied that “dude, this is water,” and the audience laughs. DFW goes on to discuss the essential value of staying aware, of elevating our observance and our consciousness to an active engagement with our environment even as we pass through the tedium of daily life.

He proceeds, however, do bring this idea to something of its opposite conclusion. DFW goes on to argue that we cannot possibly know the circumstances or situations in which people find themselves, and so being cognizant of the “water” around us, we should mentally treat them with charity. For example, instead of mentally shaming the larger woman for eating too much fast food, perhaps an understanding of our “water” will allow us to consider that eating may be the only link she has to her dead husband who was a chef, or perhaps it’s simply how she avoids crippling depression.

In short, an awareness of “water” allows us to further rationalize with the end goal of charity. Sure, the man in the Mercedes just cut you off in traffic, but perhaps he’s rushing to a hospital. Sure, that person did X, Y, or X. But they have motivation A, B, or C.

His argument isn’t that these things do exculpate, but that they might exculpate, and so we can consider this in allowing ourselves to be more charitable to the people by whom we find ourselves surrounded or attacked.

Our current cultural understanding of “charity” comes more or less directly from Jesus, who urged his followers to “love those who hate you.” This is a fundamental difference. He urged not rationalization, but acceptance. The message spoken by Jesus was one of unreserved love, charity, and compassion.

Yet even Jesus had a human moment. As He hung from the cross, His prayer wasn’t “Father, forgive them,” but rather “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” As He hung dying, even Jesus found Himself praying with a spirit of what I call “empathetic forgiveness.”

And while the charity of empathy is lovely, admirable, and incredibly difficult to practice, I find myself working to mentally dismiss it. Because the fact of the matter is that some people simply act without regard for my well-being or happiness. Or yours. A significant portion of the population will cut you in line, knowing it delays your day, simply to advance theirs. They do this not on a special day, or because of emergency, but because they simply don’t think about you as an equal, if they think about you at all.

As a human, as a man, and as an unabashed narcissist, I find this incredibly difficult to swallow. Even today, it was with relish that I sped up in my car, refusing to allow a car to cut in front of me after I’d waited in traffic for 45 minutes. If he (or she) think that they can cheat the system, the norms of society, then they should be shown that they cannot, for the good of society.

And yet … this is a mindset which I find repugnant, and which I work actively to overcome. Because a more accurate, and a more fortified, charity is one which can forgive those who mean you harm.

This is still a lesser charity because it is a passive charity. Forgiveness happens in a passive manner, alone and in one’s heart. The greater charity is active, seeking to help those who contact you, who ignore you, who hate you, or who solicit you. Each can be difficult. But first, I try to focus on a simple dedication towards “objective forgiveness.”