03 January 2009

Just Try to Change the World and See if it Doesn't Change You

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?"
[excerpt from a David Foster Wallace speech]

I used to think that social progress and individual development were somehow unrelated. I now think that social progress is the surest form of individual development and would go so far as to suspect that individual development is - at best - unsustainable without social progress.

If you live in amongst a horde of Mongolian warriors, you're not likely to have many career options outside of organized homicide or be much rewarded for advocating peace. Until there is some kind of social progress, your "development" simply won't have a place to unfold.

And yet our social reality is to us almost what the water is to Foster Wallace's young fish. The differences between two 15 year old girls in medieval Europe are almost negligible compared with the differences between a 15 year girl in medieval Europe and a 15 year old girl in modern Australia, yet we tend to focus on differences of individuals within cultures and social constructs rather than focus on changing those cultures and social constructs.

And maybe the real punch line to this is that nothing changes an individual quite like undertaking the task of changing the world. Attempting to change the individual without changing society is a dicey proposition. Attempting to change society without changing the individual is impossible.

4 comments:

ThomasLB said...

I liked this post a lot. I printed it out so my Dad could read it.

Gypsy at Heart said...

I liked this post a lot too. Reminds me of the chicken and the egg conundrum. I shall print it out also so that I may underline, scribble and mentally digest it better. Always helps to doodle on the hard to understand stuff. ;-)

wheelsonthebus said...

i learned this when i moved to a different country for two years. until that time, i had no idea how much i was a product of my environment.

Ron Davison said...

Thomas,
thanks. You printed this out? Does that mean that I've now been published?

Milena,
there is something about that which I tend to forget. I've found more than once that if I print things out, what I've struggled with becomes suddenly do-able.

Emily,
I think that for me, international travel probably did less to help me to understand the new place than it did to help me to understand my old place. It is hard to see things from inside of them.