The old fish swims by the two young fish and asks, “How is the water today?”
After swimming along, one young fish asks the other, “What is water?”
The young fish reflect together for several moments. They agree that the old fish seems to assume they are able to answer the question. Whatever water is, it is something with which all the fish are familiar. But what parts of their fish lives concern water?
The next day, still swimming in puzzlement, they come across the same old fish. One asks the elder, “If you remember, you asked us yesterday how the water is. But what are you asking about? What is the answer?”
The old fish gives a patient glance and says, “Don’t you know what water is?”
“No,” the young fish say in unison.
“But yes you do. All this is water. Water is what makes up our world. You are in it. You are from it. You are it.”
The young fish look at each other in confusion. “The world is water?” one asks.
The old fish says, “I am swimming here. You two are there. What is between us and around us?”
“Nothing…” a young fish says with a tone of uncertainty.
“Oh but notice what you’re seeing!” the old fish responds. “You already see the water. You already feel it. It equips us to swim from here to there. It is what we breathe in. It keeps us alive. We depend on it for everything!”
The young fish look around, as if accepting a challenge. They focus on the seemingly empty spaces. One exclaims, “Oh, I see it!”
In frustration, the other asks for help. “Where?!”
The old fish says, “There is no need to search for water. It is already here. And everywhere. Yes, you’re looking at water, my young friend. But see what is next to it? More water. And in front of it. And behind. Here and there.”
The young fish pause.
After a moment, the old fish says, “Enjoy the water, my friends” and swims past.
One young fish becomes disoriented by the news. Something revolutionary has taken place. The world has changed. Swimming, and even breathing, starts to feel unnatural. The old fish’s message doesn’t feel consistent with the young fish’s experience.
The young fish wonders if life would be better without the water. Then the swimming can be truly free—unconstrained by limitations that restrict movement. The water is a trap or cage. Perhaps the goal is to get away from the water.
So the fish starts swimming frantically. “But I don’t see any water. If this is all water, I don’t know what to do. I need to find a place without the water. That’s where I should be.”
The other young fish is motionless. “Nothing has changed, has it? If the old fish is right, it is not as if we first entered water when we realized that this is water. We were living in water all along. We cannot help but swim. If there is a place without water, how could we even get there?”
The first fish is not comforted. “But my swimming is different now! Everything is different! How could it not be? See? Now I’m supposedly swimming through this water stuff. I cannot catch my breath! I think I’m drowning!”
“What will make you feel better?” the friend asks.
“I want things to go back to how they were.”
“How were they before?”
“Well…” Despite being perplexed by the question, the fish’s frenzy calms.
“You were always here in the water,” says the fish’s friend. “You’re not in a new place. Yesterday was the same as today. And you always saw, used, and depended on the water. Now you recognize it.” The fish pauses. “Doesn’t all this mean it makes no sense to want things to go back to how they were before? You want there not to be water. But you cannot know what that means. Or you know that it is impossible.”
“So learning that all this is water has no impact on you?” the perplexed fish asks, gesturing all around.
“I suppose it has the impact of revealing what I’m doing. What I was already doing. Now I know what I’m in. But if I truly understand it, I see that, no matter what, I’m always swimming in the same water. Trying not to swim is more swimming. You have your reaction. I have mine. Both take place in the water. It’s all swimming.”
Both fish look around. They notice that seeing the water means seeing everything as the same as it always was. They notice that no effort is required.
They notice that effort is more swimming.
“So then… how is the water today?” one asks.