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  • Reverend James Squire

What Is Water?

There is a story of 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?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What is water?”

A corollary to this anecdote is the statement that a fish in a fish bowl cannot contemplate the absence of water because they can’t imagine life without it.

There is a part of our human nature that is problematic and gets us into trouble. It is captured by the story and observation that is above and raises important questions about recent events. Why didn’t the administration in charge of the apartment in Surfside, Florida act more quickly after the reports of structural damage to the apartment were reported three years ago? What caused the temperatures to rise to such a high degree in places around our nation as we experience a heat wave of historic proportions? Why do we miss the meaning in so many important moments when communicating with one another? Why has Trump’s Big Lie been able to receive so much attention and regarded by some as Truth? Why didn’t people pick up and act on the information about a takeover of the capitol on January 6 which was spreading before that date?

People have been quick to judge the lack of action on the part of the apartment administration in addressing the structural concerns of their complex. Why didn’t the owners of their individual apartments press harder on the report that they received to keep them safe? I believe the answer is found in the “What Is Water Syndrome?” (my expression) They couldn’t imagine the devastation that has resulted. It had never happened before. It was not in anyone’s awareness. No one was paying proper attention to the problem. Because it couldn’t be imagined, it did not have our attention. It has prompted a redirection of our attention as the remaining high rises in Surfside will be closely examined.

Ethics is about making choices and that includes choices of what we are going to think about and pay attention to. There is a phrase that has moved widely around our culture which is the antidote to this “What is water?” syndrome of not being able to see things beyond what has lulled us into apathy. The expression is, ‘If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” That refers to our personal and global perspectives. The irony is that, like the irony of the fish not knowing that it is in water, this dynamic is based in the essential elements in our lives that is often overlooked like the air that we breathe.

This is true of the Big Lie of Trump as well manifested in the Insurrection on January 6. According to reports there was so much information online about this possibility, that people are still asking how this terrible afront to our democracy could have occurred. They are looking for who was told what when, but the real answer, in my opinion, is that no one could imagine it. No one could see it in their mind’s eye. This is another case where that which is most essential like water for the fish is also subject to being overlooked. The counting of the states’ electoral votes was so essential to maintaining our democracy that it was overlooked. No one was paying attention.

This applies to Trump himself. Since he has always been able to escape accountability throughout his entire life, his actions tell us that he can’t see that he is facing criminal charges. Recall his view of what is essential. “I could shoot a man on Fifth Avenue and no one would arrest me.” As the building came tumbling down in Surfside, so Trump’s sins will come falling down on him. The Big Lie was based in his psychology of not being able to see and accept that he lost an election. Just as important is the fact that his followers and other Republican leaders couldn’t see that he could lose.

This part of our human nature is why climate change is not regarded by the lack of response of our nation. Even though we are breaking major records for highs during this heat wave, we continue to move about as though this is a minor inconvenience and not something to be taken seriously. It literally is like the air that we breathe.

This phenomenon is also seen in the relationships we have with people who are important to us. We often assume much and take others for granted. We see this in the people who have lost loved ones in the collapse of the apartment building. When interviewed many are trying to recall if they treated those who have died with proper love and respect. The people who are most essential to us or the good health that we have requires us to pay attention to those people or our own good health.

I hope that the new commission to investigate the insurrection on January 6 doesn’t focus entirely on the data they amass. They need to focus on our behavior which is more painful to engage that we couldn’t be it because we couldn’t see it with all the evidence before our very eyes. It was beyond what we could imagine. We need to make a choice to identify what is essential in our lives and make sure that we guard those issues with the utmost attention. This includes the stability of a building, the eradication of a lie to protect our democracy, our relationships with others, as well as climate change. What is the water in our lives? What is essential? See it with an improved vision to never take those things for granted again. Make an ethical choice to pay attention. The moral quality of our lives depends on it.

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