To Become a Fish Out of Water

“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?”

I’d heard this tale before, but ran across it again recently in a commencement speech by David Foster Wallace. And I saw myself as a fish who struggles every day, every decade, to break free of the water. It is a powerful gravity to escape.

This clearing the surface of my own private reality, it seems to me, is what my friends do for me, and moreso, those I don’t agree with at all. They make me feel wet. It is what my limited traveling does, and all the more reason to travel more. Leaping briefly free of my own personal fish bowl is what I am searching for every day when I scour the world of ideas, events, lies and truths (inasmuch as a fish can know them) from the internet.

To be ignorant of being wet is to drown in an unconscious, passive existence of being lived. To make no distinction between self and the manufactured medium of our times is to be swept along in its current to wherever it will carry us.

To become aware of the water is not to resent it, abhor it, or abandon it, only to appreciate that we’re soaking in it every hour of every day, and should really, once in a while, leave it to see what the soup we live in looks like, does to us, how it changes us–or not, the more we are aware of the possibility of becoming numb. Briefly above the waves, the world is a much bigger place than the tiny volume we displace by our existance.

Only if we can put distance between our skins, our tiny pink brains, our habits, norms and expectations and the megaphones that blare the fact that we are happy fish can we become to some degree free and independent swimmers in this swirling, ephemeral drop we inhabit so briefly. That kind of freedom takes us out of ourselves, brings other needy, strange, wonderful, and worthy fish of other stripes into our self-absorption, and enlarges us. The freedom of seeing our bondage to the tepid bath waters of our day can move the scales from our eyes to truly see, care, act.

Not everyone wants this. And the global swarms are forming–tighter and tighter balls of black fish and white. The white jumpers see how the ocean is changing, and this changes everything. The others, the dark unwet, see nothing, feel nothing, and would be terrified to know that there is water holding them up and holding them back all their small lives.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. DFWallace

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. WOW! That’s one whale of a metaphor and its meaning is so deep.
    The puns are intended and deliberate.

    I have one piece of relevant advice:
    If you see something you like a lot and find it very hard to resist, look at it very closely. If you discern that it is shaped like a “J” – – – have nothing to do with it. For a fish, it’s always a worm. Not all baits can conform to “the Hook” so easily.

    When it comes to politics, here of late, there are vast numbers of baits dangling from the screens of our televisions. We must learn to examine them all with great caution. Consider the source. If it comes into your life from an earthly position of a “Higher Place” your future is in danger.

    I think that’s enough from this small fish.

  2. Hey Clarence, I appreciate you coming to the bait, even though I followed the fishy metaphor maybe a bit farther than it really wanted or needed to swim. But once you get in the current, might as well follow the flow. And yep, I’ll watch out for those J-shaped temptations.

  3. I can only think of the way the bigger fish push the small ones into tighter and tighter balls, and then consume them entirely, and then the school is gone.

  4. Yesterday’s post was about missing the water that usually flows out of your spigot. Today, you give us another water metaphor. This post really spits (more water!) at yesterday’s nay-saying, doesn’t it?

  5. I made the mistake of reading this at a little dinner gathering where a couple of the guests had been asked in advance to read something. The metaphor is hard to follow by listening, better, perhaps by reading. And I let it go father than it should have carried me, especially for a stream-of-consciousness blurt with not much editing. Still, the unexamined life is a fish unaware he lives in water, which is pop culture, political whitewash and media newspeak plus all the just-so stories we accumulate to explain how the world works.