Two little fish are swimming along, and a big grouper swims by slowly, saying, ‘Good morning. The water’s lovely and warm today, boys.” The grouper swims out of sight, and one little fish turns to the other fish and says, “What’s water?”
My father used to tell this story a lot. More recently, the story has been popularised by a YouTube video of a commencement address by David Foster Wallace called “This Is Water.”
A friend of mine in Chicago once mentioned to me that she liked living beside a large body of water like Lake Michigan because it allowed her to feel small. I don’t think she meant it in the sense of insignificance, but in the sense of being humbled in the face of the immensity of that-which-is-not-you-but-relates-with-you.
I like water. No, actually, I love water. I like the way that water is always moving, even when it’s still.
Water reminds me that hope is possible.
I find water helpful for reminding me that nothing is fixed, nothing is necessary, nothing has to be the way it is. That remains a very difficult idea to carry around with me, when there are so many people going around declaring that so much is fixed, so much is necessary, and so much has to be the way it is. I’ve often made such declarations myself.
Difficult or inconvenient the idea may be, but it remains helpful, indeed, so helpful that it pretty much provides the support for my understanding of hope in the world.
Water, it seems to me, invites me to think very much about ‘how’ more than ‘what’, about relationship, about literally ‘going with the flow’, about listening to situations. Bruce Lee went for a stroll with a similar idea:
“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless – like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can *flow* or it can *crash*! Be water, my friend.”
Some people might take that as an invitation to be a doormat, to submit to people, to subordinate yourself to situations. But I don’t think that’s what he was on about. I think it was about flexibility, about appropriateness-to-context, about being aware of changing conditions, about being more fully present. The structure of the final section of Bruce Lee’s movie Game of Death unfolds these principals in narrative form through various fight scenes, as Lee adapts his fighting style to the distinct styles of each fighter he encounters on his way up the tower. While I may not be the greatest fan of oppositional fighting styles in martial arts, the movie for me provides a strong reinforcement of the key principle of fluidity and adaptation, key values in how I wish to think about gentleness.
When water is restricted it eventually becomes stagnant, unhealthy, unwelcoming, toxic. But even when water is stagnant it remains fluid.
Nothing is fixed (though much tends to be stable)
Nothing is necessary (though much tends to be helpful)
Nothing has to be the way it is (though it’s important to understand how things happen to be).