Awareness: Learning to Notice and Freedom to Choose

I have been thinking a lot this week about the 2016 Presidential Election.  The result, where Donald Trump won election to the presidency of the United States, surprised many people (me included).  And, because it was unexpected, this moment provides a great opportunity to think about surprises.

 In moments of surprise, my first response should be to notice and accept.

David Foster Wallace gave a commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005 that I think is relevant.  I’ll be sharing a few excerpts from his remarks.  He began with this story.

“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?’

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


Sometimes we are unaware of the realities that are closest and most certain to us.

Here’s the sad truth: when I find myself being surprised, I often attribute my surprise towards others, rather than toward myself.

I think, how could so many people support Trump/Clinton?  How could they have been so blind to his/her racism/corruption and incompetence and inexperience/lack of vision?

In reality, I should be thinking this:  “How could I have been so blind to the priorities of half the country?  What is it about my reality, and how it is so different than that of others, that I do not understand their point of view?”

Until I have the humility to accept that I was being narrow-minded, I won’t be able to react correctly to the unexpected and adjust my actions for the future.

David Foster Wallace, again: “The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean.  To be just a little less arrogant.  To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties.  Because a huge percentage of the stuff I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.

 My second response should be to choose.

As I’ve reflected on before, humility is hard and growth is difficult.  It requires that I admit that I have been wrong, and open my mind to change.

It requires that I forgive myself for being ignorant of my own biases, and have the patience to admit where I have been close-minded up to this moment.  And it requires me to accept that, going forward, the only mind that I have power over is my own.  I can take in the positions I see that others hold, but my own view is the only one I can change.  My own beliefs are the only ones I am able to choose.

So when I notice the old fish asking me about the water as he swims in the other direction—when I glimpse for an instant the things that normally lie below the level of my consciousness—I can choose to become aware of them and change.  I can choose to have more empathy and understanding.  I can choose to have more humility about my own biases and certainties.  I can listen to those that disagree with me with a heart that desires understanding first.  Going forward, in light of a broader, better perspective, I can exercise freedom in choosing my own thoughts and actions.

David Foster Wallace: “Learning how to think really means 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 chose and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

 My greatest fear should not be that I am wrong or that others are close-minded—it should be that I don’t find myself challenged and choosing.

But what if we never meet the older fish challenging our awareness?  Or what if we don’t pause to listen to his words?

I think that is an increasingly dangerous aspect of our insular circles, our urban-rural divide, and our partisan media echo chambers.  And the greater our surprise—when our friends voted for Trump or when our friends call us racist for voting Trump—the more important it is that we stop and notice our own biases.  What is important to me that is going unheard by others?  What is important to others that I am ignoring or failing to understand?

Because here’s the truth:  if I fail to choose my perspective with active and growing understanding of my own biases, the only person to suffer will be myself—through my own reduced freedom, lack of effectiveness, and curtailed influence on others.  And I will only have myself to blame.

So seek out opportunities to challenge your point of view.  And—even though it’s difficult—relish moments when you find yourself surprised by the important things you had failed to see: they are an opportunity.


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