I was recently reminded of David Foster Wallace‘s (1962 – 2008) well-known commencement speech: “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.” Below is a summary and commentary on the speech. Some of its main themes are: solipsism, loneliness, the monotony of life, the nature of real education, and the importance of sympathy and conscious awareness.
(At the bottom of this page is an audio of the entire speech.)
Wallace begins with a parable:
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?”
Wallace quickly explains that “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.” Against this story’s backdrop, he argues that the significance of a liberal arts education isn’t so much about learning how to think, but that it provides “the choice of what to think about.”
To explain this idea he considers a theist and an atheist who are both convinced that they know the truth. For Wallace this shows that people construct meaning from the inside by interpreting reality differently. Yet most of us are close-minded, unaware of how imprisoned we are to the ideas and events that continually shape us—to the water all around us. A real education teaches us: “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.”
So a liberal arts education gives us tools to escape from our default settings, from the things we believe to be obvious, but which really aren’t. Education
… 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 …
If you’re truly educated you can “keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.” And to show why this is so important Wallace informs the new graduates:
The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.
To explain Wallace pictures of an average day in the near future for college graduates:
you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping … So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.
This is the life that awaits graduates. It will be their life “day after week after month after year.” But we can choose to be upset about the store or the traffic, or we can reject this natural default setting, which is to be frustrated with all of this. We can then see that all of this isn’t about us; we can learn to see things differently. Perhaps those in traffic or at the store are as stressed as we are. Perhaps their lives are much worse than ours. It is hard to see the world like this, but we can do it with effort. As Wallace poetically puts it:
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.
Wallace’s point is that “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. (This is what the Stoics advised too.) 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.” (The existentialists offer similar advice.) Worshipping money, power or physical beauty will not satisfy, for you will never have enough of them. These are the things the world encourages us to worship, what we worship by default. But
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 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.
I thank Wallace for reminding me of so much—that education is about choosing to escape our biological and cultural default settings; that we can only control our own minds, not the external world; and that real education is a lifelong process. I also thank him for reminding me that the meaning of life is found, if anywhere, in ordinary things. Finally, I would like to thank all the friends and teachers who helped provide me with a liberal arts education so long ago. It has not made me rich, but it has helped make me free.
And here is the speech in full.
Note – Our of respect for DFW’s memory, I did not discuss the few sentences in the middle of the speech relating to suicide.