Someone forwarded me a YouTube video that someone made of a commencement speech that the late novelist, David Foster Wallace, gave in 2005 at Kenyon College.

The speech is (now) called “This is Water,” and this is how it begins:

“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?’”

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Wallace went on to say that “The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

He then goes on to provide a detailed example of this from everyday life. He talks about going grocery shopping after work and feeling frustrated at everything: getting stuck in traffic, having to wait in line. And he talks about how we blame everyone and everything else for causing our frustration, for being “in the way” because they are “slow” and “stupid,” etc.

Well in reality those people are not necessarily “slow” or “stupid.” There can be countless reasons for, for instance, why it takes someone a long time to pay at a cash register. That person might have arthritis in her/his hands, or s/he might not be able to see well, or s/he might be feeling sick that day.

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However, we chose not to see that reality because we function from a position of “self-centeredness.” Wallace calls this our “default setting.”

His main point then is to say that learning to think is “learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

It means noticing “the water” that surrounds us, rather than just viewing the world from our self-centered vantage point.

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After watching this video, it dawned on me that the nationalist version of history is very much like this “default setting” that Wallace talked about in people’s personal lives.

In nationalist histories, it is always other peoples who are “in the way.” Life would be fine if those other people just got out of the way, that is, if the Thais never had to deal with the Burmese, the Khmer with the Vietnamese, the Vietnamese with the Chinese, the Chinese with the Manchus, the Manchus with the Mongols. . .

And once this view of the past becomes the “default setting,” then “the most obvious, important realities” become “the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”

Can we really talk about the “Burmese” destruction of the “Thai” kingdom of Ayutthaya when many of the “Burmese” soldiers were men who had been conscripted in Lanna, Lan Xang, and other Tai polities? Can we really say that the “Chinese” have always invaded “Vietnam” when the ruling families like the Trần and the Lê sent envoys north to seek military assistance against their domestic rivals?

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To get back to those two fish, nationalist histories work fine as long as they don’t ask themselves “What is water?” Not knowing what water is, they can be content blaming others for their problems, for getting “in their way.”

If, however, they choose to look at the water, then they will find that it is too complex to simply blame others, and will have to figure out what water actually is.