As humans, our views tend to be enduring. Rarely do our opinions shift. But every now and then I’ll stumble upon a piece that resonates with me so much that it makes me take a step back and really consider my outlook on everyday life.
It sounds dramatic. But then I read and watched David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. It was an assignment for school. At first, I grumbled words of dread at the idea of sitting through a long video. But as I listened, his words struck me. His commencement speech is not a typical one; he pokes fun at the conventional layout and clichés often brought up to a graduating class. He addresses the realities of life after college, when you are an adult and naturally fall into an everyday routine.
I highly recommend that you watch or listen to the entire speech. But what I wanted to focus on is the message behind one specific section:
If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable.
But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.
What Wallace is saying here is that it’s easy to operate on a default setting. It’s easy to live with the belief that the world is supposed to cater to your needs and to your feelings, and anything hindering your progression through the day is an inconvenience. If you think about it, there is no experience in your life where you aren’t the absolute center of it. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you, but your own are immediate and real. This is our default setting, “hard-wired into our boards at birth.” But it’s rarely spoken about because it’s considered so abhorrent in a social context.
He uses the example of having to go to the supermarket after work. You’re tired after a long day, but forgot to get groceries earlier in the week. So now you’re standing in the check-out lane. And now there’s a lady screaming at her kid in front of you. Maybe you begin to feel impatient. In that situation, it’s easy to automatically become annoyed or frustrated. Because they are taking up your time by making you stand in this line longer than you feel is necessary, so now you can’t beat the evening traffic to go back to your home.
It requires little effort to take on this default setting that you are the center of the world when you are experiencing the mundane, frustrating, and boring parts of your adult life. But what Wallace emphasizes is you have no idea what people around you are experiencing in their lives. When you are aware enough, you can choose to look at these situations in a different light. Because maybe you are the one in their way. Maybe that lady is going through the worst imaginable experience in her life right now, and she’s yelling at her kid right now because it’s all bubbling up and coming out in that moment right in front of you.
Society promotes this mindset. Society pushes the idea of personal freedom, letting us, as Wallace puts it, “be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of creation.” But real, true freedom means having enough consciousness and awareness to choose how you construct meaning in your experiences.
So what kind of knowledge does it take to adjust your mindset in day-to-day life away from the default? He admits that this is a difficult thing to do. There are days when you won’t want to put in the effort and there are days when you just can’t. Wallace speaks to his own experience, saying that an academic education actually enables his tendency to over-intellectualize, and get lost in the “abstract argument in [his] head.” He misses what’s going on right in front of him.
But what I got out of his speech is that it’s important to just be aware when you are experiencing those kinds of days. Having the ability to remind yourself of the true realities that exist around you and the potential differences in perceptions between yourself and others is essential to living a meaningful life. I never considered that idea fully until hearing Wallace’s speech.
The phrase “This is water” from the title of the speech is part of an anecdote that Wallace begins with by telling a story about two fish.
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 meaning behind this story drives Wallace’s point home. What it means to live with knowledge is to live with your eyes open and knowing what’s right in front of you. It means to live with discipline, awareness, and attention. It’s choosing what’s real and what’s essential. It’s reminding yourself “This is water.” It’s getting to choose what is meaningful to you, and understanding what it means to think. And it’s putting those ideas at the forefront of your daily consciousness.