David Foster Wallace was an American novelist, best known for Infinite Jest and The Pale King, and a professor of English at Emerson College, Illinois State University, and Pomona College. Some literary critics consider Wallace one of the most innovative and influential writers in the last two decades. Sadly, after struggling with depression for many years, Wallace committed suicide in 2008, at the age of 46. His readers and the literary and academic communities experienced a great sense of loss; Wallace was acknowledged by many glowing tributes and four public memorial services.
In 2005, an English and Philosophy student from the commencement speaker committee from Kenyon College, a small prestigious liberal arts college located in Gambier, Ohio (with an enchanting Hogwarts School vibe), invited Wallace to deliver the commencement address to the school’s graduating class. He was told he could speak on any topic. His speech, delivered on May 21, 2005, is titled “This is Water” because Wallace uses water as a metaphor for the essential things in life that are hidden in plain sight, so easy to overlook. This mirrors one of the most famous lines in St. Exupery’s The Little Prince — “What is essential is invisible to the eye” (in the original French: “L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.”), spoken by the fox.
Wallace uses the opportunity of a college commencement speech to share the most important lessons he has learned in life. He addresses several important questions, including “How do we keep from going through adult life unconsciously, comfortably entrenched in habit (“the default setting”)? How do we remove ourselves from the foreground of our thoughts and achieve compassion? How do we think about our world and separate the truth from the lies? Ultimately, Wallace believes that the goal of education is to create individuals who think freely and critically and act compassionately. It is no wonder that “This is Water” is considered to be one of the best commencement speeches of all time.
Wallace’s speech was published four years later in a small book titled This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. Inexplicably, however, Wallace’s speech was broken up into isolated paragraphs and sentences, each centered on their own page. Reading his eloquent and passionate speech this way is incredibly disjointed — not to mention, annoying. It’s like reading a long essay by piecing together dozens of tiny bits of paper from fortune cookies. It’s a good thing the editors of this small tome did not work on Infinite Jest — otherwise that lengthy novel, running 1,079 pages containing 577,608 words, would have been published in 60 volumes. Although Wallace committed suicide by hanging, the editors deleted the last two sentences of the original speech that refer to suicide by gunshot: “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. They shoot the terrible master.”
Here are some key excerpts from “This is Water”:
“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?”… The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.
The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre 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.
Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education–least in my own case–is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.
As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.”
This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.
Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.
It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water… This is water.”
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.
I wish you way more than luck.”
The full text of the speech can be read here.
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For further reading:
The Legacy of David Foster Wallace by Samuel Cohen and Lee Konstantinou
Gesturing Toward Reality: David Foster Wallace and Philosophy by Robert Bolger and Scott Korb