When I’m standing in the underground train station in Taipei, I can’t help smile when the music comes on to announce the Train is coming. It’s been such an incredible year, and I feel blessed to have met so many beautiful kind people, having thoughtful conversations and making wonderful new friends. There’s been a lot of lessons that have really been more on my mind, such as: the art of truly not giving a f*ck what others think, the importance of focusing on what adds value in your life, surrounding yourself and investing in positive, motivated people, having critical thinking and questioning the information you consume, embracing being your freaking self, that you choose your attitude regardless of the situation, the importance of not settling in a relationship, allow yourself to feel and embrace discomfort, how emotions can distort reality, what you place focus on is how you will feel and what we feed our mind and the thoughts we think is essentially the world we create for ourselves.
I was reflecting back to the start of 2017, listening to the speech This is Water, by David Foster Wallace. I highly recommend having a read or listen to it. There is power in having the ability to choose, which can strengthen our perception of what we are capable of rather than narrowing our abilities. David Foster Wallace highlights that Liberal arts fundamentally teaches us how to think critically as we advance into the adult world. Critical awareness allows us to be less self-centred and reinforces our self-control. In our daily lives, we tend to put ourselves at the centre of the universe. We are the person that feels, observes and experiences the world around us. Wallace says “Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.”
Instead of placing ourselves at the centre of the universe, we can choose to see things from different perspectives. When we walk we often let our thoughts take control, rather than consciously taking control of our thoughts. It becomes natural to think about our own problems and prioritise them as the most important. This can cause a confinement that builds an invisible barrier around us if we do not learn to be aware of the world outside of ourselves. Becoming aware builds empathy even when we feel frustration in our own lives, as it creates an understanding that some people are going through hard times. Critical awareness and exercising control of how and what you think, is an incredibly powerful ability to pouring thoughts that have substance and meaning.
The mistake in how we often perceive things are that things are just the way they appear from our mind, as it would immediately dismiss the importance of seeing things from different angles. The most obvious things are often right in front of us, regardless of how they may appear. An example that Wallace uses is the story of two young fish, who swim along as an older fish swims past. The older fish says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” and eventually one of them looks at the other and says “What the hell is water?” There is a sense of ignorance and confusion that the fish are not aware of their surroundings, and have developed a limited and narrow view. We see things from the experiences we’ve had and the worldview we possess. Yet, in order to have an open mind, there’s a need to question, understand and see things from different perspectives.
In this case, the two fish were metaphorically in their own space, unaware of the water surrounding them. There is a choice in recognising these things, but we often live through our days blindly looking past them. It becomes a learned ability over time. The water also symbolises the space we move in, such as the air we walk, breathe and live in. We can see these realities when we learn to switch on the ability to see them, which makes us present and conscious beings. Wallace says “Banal Platitudes can have a life or death importance”. The seemingly obvious and boring aspects of our lives are suggested to have a life or death importance because they are the moments that remind us that we can choose how to react, how to feel and what to think. This gives us an inner power that we lack control of when we ignore it. However, we do not often become conscious of this ability, as we swim by like the young fish, without realising that it is there right in front of us. In this instance, it is not about the capacity to think, but about the choice of what to think about.
When we see something as banal, we feel that it is such an ordinary aspect of our days, that it does not deserve the attention as it lacks interest. I believe that ‘banal platitudes’ are important, even if something seems obvious or dull that it is right in front of our eyes, banal platitudes reminds that we can create value and meaning in those obvious statements. We have seconds, minutes, hours of moments that we can give value to by viewing them as meaningful and significant. The deliberate effort to be aware opens our eyes to see things from different perspectives. We have a choice in widening our horizon in what we see, by being conscious of the world around us and becoming curious individuals. Rather than blindly walking through life, we have the choice to address and observe situations, as well as the ability to choose how we perceive things. This can make those seemingly boring moments have significant meaning.
The critical awareness we have causes us to be less self absorbed in our own lives and needs. It almost makes us look through a lens where we see the world as a whole, rather than a lens that restricts our visions to the narrowed reality we imagine. This honestly makes me think of the use of phones. I really want to strive to use my phone less when I don’t need it, in order to embrace being more and more present and to cut out distractions, because as I look around I really think we are becoming slaves to our phones. When we choose to be aware of our surroundings and situations, we become more accepting, patient and tolerant. We place a focus on paying attention to what we deem important, rather than allowing our thoughts to sway towards unnecessary and often negative voices. Becoming aware of our ability to choose and giving time to focus our mind intentionally determines how we want to live our lives.