PIACENZA: Which end of the telescope are you looking through?
“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 h--- is water?”
I find this opening line from a commencement address given by author David Foster Wallace very funny, not only because of the cartoonish fish, but because of the ironic kernel of truth it’s based on. The more subjectively narrow our world view, the more likely we are to swim merrily along oblivious to the most obvious big-picture realities.
Another illustration of this idea is the story of the people of a forest tribe whose lives were lived entirely from start to finish surrounded by tree trunks, vines and a leafy canopy. One day people from the outside world take several of the tribesmen out of the forest to a beach bordering the ocean. When asked what they think of the vast open horizon, the apparently endless waters, the tribesmen are puzzled. Their companions finally realize that the forest people literally cannot see the ocean, it’s so far out of their habitual, tightly cloistered reality.
Like all of us, my human subjective reality places me squarely in the center of my own personal universe. Everything is happening to me, around me, inside me. Yet when I try to function strictly from this narrow viewpoint, things don’t go well, to put it mildly. I’ve come to realize that all personal actions are taken on a larger field containing others’ decisions, actions and desires, not to mention social factors, emotions and even the weather. Undertaking tasks and goals without understanding that my efforts are only one factor in the outcome will keep me in a losing battle of control.
What awakens us to the fact that our naturally self-centered viewpoint is not the ultimate truth of things? Butting heads with others equally self-oriented as we are certainly gets our attention. As the realization dawns that everyone is the star of their own life movie, we learn the importance of being willing to cooperate, collaborate and compromise in getting just about anything done. More than that, we begin to be able to put ourselves in the shoes of those living their own painful or even tragic story. But perhaps most important is a conscious choice to “get over ourselves.” Here’s how Foster Wallace explained it:
“Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being ‘well-adjusted,’ which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.”
Unlike Wallace, I don’t believe personal willpower alone is enough to understand the larger context of our lives. I believe making the conscious choice to cultivate compassion connects us to an expansive, beneficial energy larger than ourselves that builds on itself the more we pay attention to it. When we choose to turn the telescope around, instead of the ant-like minutia of daily life, our view is filled by the firmament and the glittering stars of our better angels.
Alexandra Piacenza is a 10-year resident of Prescott, retired from a career in technical writing and strategic planning. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.