Professor Henny Kim-Ortel
09 March 2018
Perceiving the Present
“I’m too busy!” Too often this is said in the modern age, where the idea of family being the most important crumpled under the weight of school and work. A time where everyone is too busy rushing around, following work schedules and making appointments, to see their child’s first painting, or to realize there is a new store down the street. A place where each person always has just one more thing on their list. What do they miss when they are always on the go, never stopping long enough to notice the little things in life, never really living in the present moment? Are they forever stuck in the system of their own life, or do they have a choice to break free of their own world?
In his speech, “This Is Water,” author David Foster Wallace stresses the importance of paying attention and enlightens us on the fact that we have the power to choose what we think, how we think, and the time we allow ourselves to think. He strives to show us the value of simple awareness and how it benefits us in daily life.
Though one may not know it, many people are trapped in the circle of their own feelings and thoughts and beliefs, and cannot see beyond what they automatically deem to be true without examination. Wallace designates this condition to be, “blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.” (2) When not paying attention, one can miss information that they might need and so become trapped in their own lack of perception.
In regular, ordinary, everyday life, this happens quite often, although not everything we miss is as detrimental to our knowledge. Arthur Conan Doyle, author of “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes,” gives us a good example of this in his short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” The story begins with Holmes and his good friend Dr. Watson, who are sitting in their rooms on Baker Street, discussing the differences between seeing and observing. When asked how many times he had seen and used the steps leading up to the rooms which they were now occupying, Watson replied that it amounted to hundreds of times. Holmes then inquired, “Well then, how many steps are there?” to which Watson answered that he did not know. At this reply, Holmes, declared, “Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.” (Doyle 406) Holmes is trying to make a point, that there is a difference between seeing and observing. To see is to simply view something. To observe is to perceive, or, in other words, to become aware of it.
For my own part, I am as guilty as Watson for not paying close attention to my own surroundings. For a few years, there has been much construction in a field near my house that we drive by every day. They had built two new houses recently and had still been working on the second one for some time. Four months later, the house was nearly finished. As we drove by the field on our way home for perhaps the billionth time, I leaned forward in my seat gazing intently at it. To my amazement, a three-hundred foot long fence spanned the edge of the field, hemming it in so as to make it more private. I had not noticed it at all in the last few days, and I wondered when they had put it up. I turned to my dad who was driving and asked him when the fence had been built. He replied, with a somewhat surprised look, that it had been there for the past few months! I was astonished to learn this news. In all the times I had passed that field, I had never paid enough attention to notice the fence had indeed been there for some time.
Just like one might overlook the details in everyday life, one may also fail to notice the other people in their surroundings. Too often are we so busy with our own desires and emotions that we do not realize that others may be experiencing the same scenarios. Many times in a given situation we may be prone to angry outbursts at the world due to our limited view of the event.
In my own family, when my youngest brother Elijah was diagnosed with cancer at seven weeks old, my family could have become angry at the world and at our situation. Instead, we chose to see that we were not the only family experiencing the awful stroke of cancer and that there were many others who had gone before us on this same road, or even had experienced a worse affliction.
Perceiving what is truly going on in the present moment allows one to form a more accurate opinion on what is happening and to not be restricted to their own feelings and emotions in a given situation. As the author writes, “But if you really learn to pay attention, then you will know there are other options.” (Wallace 5) The author is trying to inform us that, in the midst of a stressful environment, if we are aware of what is truly happening, we can see other ways of responding and avoid a possible outburst of uncontrolled, uninformed anger. My family chose to recognize our condition and see the conditions of others through the context of our own struggles. This allowed us to move on through the pain and to see that there were others who were on the same journey alongside us. In the face of a great enemy, we bonded together with others fighting against it and therefore composed a greater force to rise against it.
In his speech, Wallace also stresses the fact that being aware requires one to let go of one’s natural self-centered desires. It requires one to realize that they are not, in fact, the center of the universe. As the author deftly puts it, “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.” (Wallace 2) Wallace believes that being aware is simply about seeing things in a new light that realizes that the world does not revolve around us.
Realizing that not everything is about one’s self allows one to see that other people have the same struggles. Awareness permits one to to see this, and to realize that they have a choice. A choice to sympathize with myself, or to identify with another.
This choice allows one a true freedom of response. Wallace claims that, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able to truly care about other people.” (6) And that is this freedom. The freedom to truly care for others, to let go of our natural selfish desires and, through awareness, to say, “I see you, I understand, I care.”
Doyle, Arthur Conan. “The Ultimate Collection of Sherlock Holmes: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.” Kindle Edition. June 28 2016.
Wallace, David Foster. ‘This is Water.” 2005 Commencement Address. 21 May 2005. Kenyon College.