I drafted this a few weeks ago, but did not publish it because it felt incomplete:
“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?’ “
One of the great and terrible things about this country, is that we can go through all our lives not seeing anything that might mean everything for someone else — or even ourselves. I discovered one such example of this when I was on the Carnival cruiseline a few days ago. Having lost all our money on craps, my friends and I were discussing the lives of casino workers on the ship, many of which who looked like immigrants, and would work six straight months without a break. We argued over whether this schedule was better than that the usual white-collar five-day workweek, but in the end we agreed that the casino workers would probably like to do better things with their lives. We figured maybe they had dreams, but had to defer them in favor of siphoning money back to their families in their respective home countries.
As David Foster Wallace so eloquently puts it, the greatest value of education is the ability to think, “to put meaning in a situation”. Our suppositions may not be true, but they may not be entirely untrue either, and we have no way of knowing. We saw the casino workers, but really, we didn’t. We don’t know their stories, their lives to tell. All we know is they remembered our bets. And so is the activity beneath our everyday existence, where a network of such workers: janitors keeping our premises clean, farmers growing our food, construction workers building our infrastructure, police protecting our streets, and so on… toils day in and day out. There is no better way to see the power of everything that you don’t see, than when the world is reduced down into a microcosm of a cruise ship.
This is blessing of specialization. We can be blissfully unaware of everything around us, so long as we do our job. We can choose not to see what passes by us every second of every minute of our lives. But it puts us in the position of ignorance. We take the ticking of the world’s clock for granted; we assume everything’s going to be there for us. We can live our entire lives this way, and it might not be any less of a life than that of your coworker or superior But we lose a sense of scale, the great appreciation of the little things around us; we operate under our “natural default setting”. And when those services are relinquished, those who never saw them miss them the hardest.
I finish this piece about the water around us with a quote from Richard Feynman, while about electromagnetic waves and light, is certainty applicable to the closer realms of our human existence: “…but that all these things are going through the room at the same time, which everyone knows … but you got to stop and think about it to really get the pleasure about the complexity [of it all]…”
With the Yarnell Hills tragedy being the deadliest firefighter incident since 9/11, I wanted to revisit this topic. The accident reminds us that the activity beneath our eyes is not only toiling, but dangerous at times.
The thing is this: for people like us to live the comfortable lives we live, there has to someone to take that risk. If nobody takes that risk, then each person faces a higher risk. It’s a tragedy of commons of sorts, where safety is the scarce resource. If everyone takes the safety, society as a whole becomes more dangerous. Similarly, if everyone takes a non-laborious, “clean” job, society as a whole becomes more disgusting. You get the picture.
It sucks, but you realize that social stratification in a society as vast and complex as ours is a necessity to sustain our way of life… prosperity in the 1% depends on the presence of the 99%. Somebody’s gotta do the dirty work.
So noticing what you do not see may not just be a matter of appreciation, but something more… a thanks for those who risk life, limb, and health to keep us safe. Despite the fallen firefighters’ efforts, half the nearby town of Yarnell nearby was incinerated. The destruction there serves to remind us how much we really need the water around us.