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In which John discusses being a small fish that does not know what water is.

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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday. 

Here's a joke that David Foster Wallace made famous in a commencement address. These two young fish are swimming along, and an older fish swims by and says, "Morning, boys! How's the water?" And the two young fish just kind of look at each other, and then keep swimming. And then after a while, one says to the other, "What the hell is water?" 

To ruin a perfectly good joke by explaining it, the conceit here is that most of us do not know what we are swimming in, and cannot contextualize our reality with the clarity or sophistication of the wise, older fish. 

I was 23 when I first heard this joke, and at the time I believed that adulthood was a process through which one became the wise, older fish. And so I spent a lot of time listening to people who purported to be that wise, older fish - people who could tell me the real reality of the world in which I found myself. Some of these people were aggressively religious, some were aggressively atheistic. Some were conservative, some were liberal, but what they had in common was a certainty that I found almost desperately attractive. They all told me that once I really opened my eyes, I would see for myself that this is water. Jesus is water, or anti-theism is water. Rigid social hierarchies are water, or radical egalitarianism is water. Low-fat diets are water, or low-carb diets are.

And all of it was compelling to me because I so wanted to be the wise fish. In fact, if you look at old Vlogbrothers videos, or even more recent ones probably, you can see me trying to assume that role. I dole out advice as if I know what I'm doing, or make pronouncements about internet life, as if I have any idea where social media is taking us. And I expound upon my many certainties, when I find my actual life to be defined mostly by uncertainty. 

I've often thought that if I just pretended to be the wise, older fish, I would eventually become it. But while I do think that you can fake your way through most of adult life, I don't think you can fake your way to enlightenment. 

And the truth is, especially when it comes to the weirdnesses of 21st century life, I have no idea what we are swimming in. I don't know if the social internet is good or bad. I don't know if outrage eventually leads to better human lives. And I definitely don't know, like, when to follow back, or how to get that just-right makeup look for the first day of school. But here's the thing: I don't think anybody else knows either.

These days, one of the few things I feel certain about is that I don't trust people who are extremely certain about things. I'm 40 now, and one of the benefits of middle-age for me is that rather than feeling compelled by those claiming to be the wise, older fish, I'm suspicious of them. 

Now, that's not to say that enlightenment or capital-A Awareness are impossible. I just think they're, you know, pretty uncommon. I think most of us will continue to struggle, on one level or another, to apprehend the colorless, odorless, transparent stuff that we're swimming in. 

Which is okay. You can keep swimming anyway, and you can keep asking what the hell water is. Sometimes you'll ask that question in desperation and fear, seeking reassurance that this water won't harm you, reassurance you can never really find because the water will harm you. Sometimes you'll ask the question in awe or wonder, sometimes in bemusement or frustration, and sometimes in joy. How can this water be so beautiful? So euphoric? So heart-breaking? So terrifying? I mean, what the hell is this? You will keep asking the question, and you will stay the young fish. But maybe asking the question is its own kind of answer. 

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.