A Thirsty Fish
I don’t get tired of you. Don’t grow weary
of being compassionate toward me!
All this thirst equipment
must surely be tired of me,
the water jar, the water carrier.
I have a thirsty fish in me
that can never find enough
of what it’s thirsty for!
Show me the way to the ocean!
Break these half-measures,
these small containers.
All this fantasy
Let my house be drowned in the wave
that rose last night out of the courtyard
hidden in the center of my chest.
I don’t want learning, or dignity,
I want this music and this dawn
and the warmth of your cheek against mine.
The grief-armies assemble,
but I’m not going with them.
It arrived, as it seems such things do these days, as a posting from someone I distantly know on Facebook: a video that was recommended as intriguing. I clicked, and the video began with some jaunty music and a disembodied voice over an image of two goldfish swimming in a bowl:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet on 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’s water?”
Yeah, cute, I thought. I’ve heard the story before: one of those old Sufi teaching tales that I’ve always liked. The speaker goes on, and I realize that he’s talking to an audience – turns out to be a college graduation address from some eight years ago, and the speaker is the one-time literary phenom David Foster Wallace.
What is arresting is what he does with the story, and what the video does with his words. Wallace acknowledges the obvious – using his word – “platitude” that the story offers up: that, as he says, “the most important realities are often the ones that it’s hardest to see and talk about.”
But he cautions that these so-called platitudes can actually be significant. They can even have a life-or-death importance for us, and to demonstrate he invites the graduates into a kind of eerie flash forward to a less than glamorous moment of the lives that await them.
“Let’s say,” he begins, “it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or 10 hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple hours and then hit the bed early, because you have to get up the next day and do it all again.
“But then you remember there’s no food at home – you haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job – and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because, of course, it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping.
“You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people. And when you get your stuff it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open, even though it’s the end-of-the day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long.”
Our response, says Wallace, is to find all this “stupid and infuriating.” But, of course, it does no good to take our fury out on the people in line or the harried checkout lady. So, we pack the flimsy plastic bags of groceries in our cart, with – he adds with a sly touch – the one wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, through the crowded, pot-holed, littery parking lot, and head home through slow, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic.
Something like a modern version of one of Dante’s circles of hell, no? But, in a sense that’s the least of it, Wallace says, when you consider that in our lives this scene will be repeated, day after week after month after year. And of course, it may not be this moment that gets our goat, but another one of the many infuriating, routine tasks that swallow up the precious minutes of our lives.
So, what to do? One option, of course, is to follow what Wallace calls our natural “default settings”: to pop off at the next guy, give the check-out person a hard time, or just bury ourselves in numbness. Another, though, is to entertain the possibility of seeing these moments as an opportunity for choosing.
I came upon Wallace’s talk at about the time I was mulling over what might be themes for worship this coming year. It was also a time of a new crop of commentaries predicting the downfall of religion. You’ve seen some of these, I expect. Churches across the spectrum are emptying, denominational numbers are down, and the numbers of those who affirm no religious affiliation are rising. Some of these people express no interest in religion, although as a percentage of people surveyed this group hasn’t grown particularly in recent years.
What has grown, and significantly, is the number of people who affirm an interest in religion but are unaffiliated with any particular religious tradition, or who identify themselves as spiritual, but not religious. We Unitarian Universalists have tended to look at those trends and crow that these are folks are ripe to join our churches, people like many of us who abandoned the religious homes of our childhoods for this one.
This may be true for some, but we would be wise to note that when these people say “not religious” they tend to have places like us in mind, as well, and this may be problem that we have contributed to creating.
Diana Butler Bass is a long-time observer of religion who has spent a good deal of time looking at this boundary between the religious and non-religious. She notes that in the West, at least, the path to faith across traditions has taken a particular shape with three stages, which she identifies as: believe, behave, belong.
That is to say, the threshold question to be answered when one enters a church usually is, what do you believe? This comes after many centuries of schisms and conflicts over theological doctrine, resulting in religions defining themselves in terms of where they stand on certain religious propositions. This tends to be true even for us, a non-creedal religion. Though we have no uniform doctrine, we tend to raise questions of religious belief early in our orientation process.
In the traditional model, once you orient yourself to a particular belief structure, you reshape your practices in certain ways: attend worship, enroll in religious education, take part in social justice work, and so on. Finally, then, you decide to become a member.
But Bass says that there’s something odd about this arrangement. It isn’t really the way the rest of the world works. For example, she said, if you decide you want to join a knitting group, you don’t spend a lot of time reading up on knitting doctrinal statements or knitting history. You just dive in. You find someone who can teach you the basics, go to the yarn shop, and find a knitting class. In time, if it appeals to you, you get to know the others there, and you find that the group makes you feel better about yourself, gives you a sense of service, and maybe a deeper sense of meaning.
In her words: “relationship leads to craft, which leads to experimental belief.” So, how would it be if churches followed a similar path: Moving not from belief to behaving to belonging, but from belonging to behaving to belief?
Belonging to a community starts with a flash of recognition – “I fit with these people; this feels good.” We make friends and find that being a part of that community makes our hearts lighter and the world more interesting. After hanging around a while, we see how they do things, how they act with each other, what they do in the world, and we find that it resonates with a deep place in ourselves. Then, engaging the questions raised in that community and the wisdom it holds dear, we come to a more settled sense of our place in the world and our responsibilities to it, a faith of sorts that shifts and grows amid the trajectory of our lives.
And here is where I connect again with David Foster Wallace, but with a twist. So, remember? There we are in that slow-moving check-out line, where, say, one person in front of us is talking loudly on a cell phone, another is a frazzled mother with a shrieking child, another has this deadened, cow-like expression and this guy in front of us has a Confederate flag stitched to his jacket.
I can dwell on all the reasons this scene upsets or frustrates me, or, Wallace says, “or I can choose to consider the likelihood that everyone else in this line is just as bored and frustrated as I am. . . .
“If you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice,” he says, “you can choose to look differently at this fat, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid. Maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights with her husband, who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.”
It may even be in your power, he says, “to experience this crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things.”
And how do we put ourselves into a posture where we’re willing to consider such possibilities? Well, Wallace, in this college graduation address, argues that it is a benefit that education gives us: we are taught, in his words, “how to think,” to appreciate what he calls “the capital T truth” that you get to decide for yourself how you will see the world and how you will orient your life toward it.
Now, being a college graduate who gained much from that experience, I wouldn’t deny that much of the wisdom that can turn us in that way is certainly present there. But in truth, I think, whether or not you are a college graduate or have any other kind of fancy education is not enough. We need something more: we need community.
We need a community that will provide a crucible to help us figure out where we fit and how the world works while we struggle to make our way. We need a community that will hold us when things fall apart and those brilliant ideas sound so hollow. We need a community that will celebrate and help make connections for our kids and our partners, that will invite us to consider new ways of opening ourselves and introduce us to amazing people who share our hopes for the world.
That is what we are building here. It’s a community that offers no litmus test of belief but invites you to bring your our own journey of religious discovery and join us in the work of building freedom, justice and love. And central to that, I believe, is the work that Wallace points us to – developing disciplines and looking beyond distractions in order to see the truth and beauty around us. Challenging work, but critical to the peace and spiritual centeredness that I think we all seek.
So, this year in worship I plan to use many of the elements that Wallace introduced in his provocative speech as themes that will help us do that. We’ll touch on these in worship, but I also invite you to join us in one of our Theme groups or Covenant groups that are forming right now to carry the conversation further. Or, bring it into other settings in this community, or just dip into the Worship Theme resources you’ll find on our Web site.
Finally, let’s return to Wallace’s little fish story. Another version of the story imagines one of the fish returning to his mother at the end of the day, confused and frightened about what the older fish had said.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “What is this water? Is it dangerous? Is it going to hurt me?”
“Oh, sweetie,” his mother said. “Don’t worry. Water is everywhere we go. It’s all around us and inside us. It’s what we live in.”
As his mother spoke and stroked his head, the little fish began to calm down, and, as he did, at his mother’s side, he began to feel a little current of water in his gills, and on his scales. He really had never noticed it before.
For the Sufis, the story points to a deeper wisdom. What water is to fish, they say, love is to the human being. It is all around us, inside us, and everywhere we go: available to us if we can allow ourselves to experience it.
In gathering resources for you to reflect on our themes, I invited a number of you to act as curators to provide books, poems, quotes, videos as well as personal reflections. You can find many of them on our Web site. One reflection on our first theme, awareness, came from Sharon Van Dyke. She gave me permission to share it with you.
Sharon wrote that she was 34 when she and her husband, Chris, lost their first pregnancy. “I had been a really tough time,” she wrote. “I spent months trying to hold back a lot of negative feelings about losing the baby, primarily because I wanted to be able to move on, so we could try again. But it was exactly that – the holding back of feelings – that made it harder to move through it.”
Coaching in a meditation practice, she wrote, helped her wake up to her feelings and even embrace them. Things turned out OK in the end. They now have three rambunctious boys. But Sharon still reflects on what a struggle it was to make room for that deep discomfort within her, to see that attention needed to be paid to it.
“To me it’s about the bigness and smallness of life, which coexist at the same time,” she wrote. Of course, those feelings “mean a great deal to you. But while you’re there can you also see the smallness of it? Can you see how you are surrounded by others, 7 billion others, people just like you, in their own moments?”
As Rumi said, we truly are all thirsty fish, struggling to find enough of what we’re thirsty for. All this fantasy and grief around us: Which way to the ocean?
Well, let the armies of those wrapped up in their grief be on their way. I’m not going with them.
No, as David Foster Wallace puts it I want to open myself to what’s present before me, to bring my awareness “to what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over.
“This is water.”
“This is water.”
Resources: This Is Water by David Foster Wallace, Little, Brown & Co., 2009; and Christianity after Religion by Diana Butler Bass, Harper Collins, 2012.