I never read anything by David Foster Wallace, even though I went to school at Illinois State University where he began his career and where his legend still looms large. Although I never quite had the taste for his labyrinthine novel packed with footnotes, I was always curious about the man and the persona he projected– the long hair, the bandanna, the chewing tobacco and by all accounts he was, despite his success, a kind, humble, and gentle man. It’s shame we lost him.
As it’s graduation season, I’ve seen many references to DFW’s commencement address titled “This is Water” which he delivered at Kenyon College eleven years ago. Something drew me to that speech this year, and I was reminded how certain things find their way to you only when you are ready for them and not a moment before.
You can find a transcript of the speech here: “This is Water”.
The address is rather simple, and by DFW’s own admission full of platitudes and cliches.
But yet, and maybe because of that simplicity, it’s utterly profound, not just for graduates but for all of us who forgot what it was like to graduate, for all of us that fallen into the default modes and methods of thinking that come with adulthood.
Ideas abound in the speech, but what struck me the most was what he considers the ‘default mode’ of adults. Most of our day-to-day frustrations, DFW argues, stem from the belief that we are the center of the universe.
“Think about it:” Wallace writes, “there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.”
Imagine, he continues, that if instead of automatically assuming that the guy who cut us off on the interstate is a prick who is out to ruin OUR day, we considered the possibility that his son is sick in the passenger seat and needs rushed to the hospital. Wallace understands this is far fetched of course but still, imagine the stress it would save us to think this way. That concept of denying the self, I think, is what Christ suggested we do, is what the Buddha thought was the right way as well.
Like I said, nothing new, nothing too difficult, just something highly profound, something good for all of us to remember, because any little stress relieving bit helps…
Also, being able to look at others in the way he describes is a great tool for writers and for expanding our creativity.. More on that at the end of the week.
Until then, here is also a link that discussed how David Foster Wallace almost didn’t deliver this speech. Quite an interesting read: “David Foster Wallace’s Famous Commencement Speech Almost Didn’t Happen.”
Let me know what you think of the speech and jumped out at you….