Monthly Archives: June 2016

Feeding Your Family is the Meaning of Life

In response to two recent post, “The Monotony of Work” and “Summary of David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech,” I received a perceptive comment from a reader. The commentor (C) is a well-paid software engineer who doesn’t look forward to thirty years of the same work. While thankful for gainful employment and recognizing the role that such works plays in sustaining civilization, what bothers him most is that his intellect is on loan to his employer, rather than being used in a search for truth and wisdom. And if he had a job that afforded this opportunity, he would be willing to make less money. (A better alternative would be to have a guaranteed minimum income to allow people to do what they enjoy.)

I was touched by the sorrow C feels in not being able to spend one’s life reading and learning precisely what one is most interested in and considers most important. I too felt that sorrow long ago and was fortunate enough to be able to pursue, and get modestly paid, for doing philosophy. I also relate to the pain he feels in knowing that he will never be able to know and be all that he want to be—a pain that all seekers of truth feel deeply.

C, who is about to become a father, believes that working to support his child will give more meaning to his work. He thinks that working for his child will be more moral and holy than pursuing “amor intellectualis Dei” (the intellectual love of God), for the latter is, after all, a selfish or hedonistic pursuit. Moreover, C had parents who sacrificed so that he was fed and educated. Thus he feels an obligation to do likewise for his own child. Perhaps then his own child to be able to both seek wisdom and be gainfully employed. As for C himself this probably isn’t possible, as his career demands too much of his psychic energy.

This last question particularly interests me. The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard famously agonized over whether family life or being a philosopher was his better choice. Family life would impinge on the pursuit of truth and vice versa. Kierkegaard would choose philosophy over his love Regine Olsen, but he forever regretted his choice. Many of us face similar choices. I’ve had many students ask me whether they should major in something they loved with few job prospects like philosophy, or whether they should pursue something more financially rewarding but less interesting to them like accounting.

There are no easy answers to such questions. (I have addressed this topic in depth in “Should You Do What You Love?) What I can say is that even if one is lucky enough to pursue and be paid to do what you love—in my case to write, read, teach, and think about philosophy—one will find that there are unpleasant aspects to the job. You have to deal with uninterested or hostile students, dogmatic colleagues, disagreeable deans, unhelpful staff, boring meetings and more. This recognition might lead us to be more accepting of less than perfect jobs.

However C is correct that marriage, family and other outside interests do give us less time to pursue wisdom. Surely without a family and the demands of teaching so many college classes,  nearly 250 in my career, I would have been a more productive philosopher. But would I have been a better one? Would I have gained more wisdom? I doubt it. There is a reason that Buddhist monks considers tasks like washing dishes, planting food, and other mundane tasks as opportunities for Enlightenment. We often find the deepest insights in the most simple things.

All of this reminds me of the words of one of my intellectual heroes, the historian, philosopher, and wisdom lover Will Durant. He says that we cannot definitely answer questions about the meaning of life or how we should live our lives—our minds are too small to entirely comprehend these things. Nonetheless, Durant believes we can say that:

The simplest meaning of life then is joy—the exhilaration of experience itself, of physical well-being; sheer satisfaction of muscle and sense, of palate and ear and eye. If the child is happier than the man it is because it has more body and less soul, and understands that nature comes before philosophy; it asks for no further meaning to its arms and legs than their abounding use … Even if life had no meaning except for its moments of beauty … that would be enough; this plodding thru the rain, or fighting the wind, or tramping the snow under sun, or watching the twilight turn into night, is reason a-plenty for loving life.[i]

We should be particularly thankful for our fellows; they are a primary reason for loving life.

Do not be so ungrateful about love … to the attachment of friends and mates who have gone hand in hand through much hell, some purgatory, and a little heaven, and have been soldered into unity by being burned together in the flame of life. I know such mates or comrades quarrel regularly, and get upon each other’s nerves; but there is ample recompense for that in the unconscious consciousness that someone is interested in you, depends upon you, exaggerates you, and is waiting to meet you at the station. Solitude is worse than war.[ii]

Love relates the individual to something more than itself, to some whole which gives it purpose.

I note that those who are cooperating parts of a whole do not despond; the despised “yokel” playing ball with his fellows in the lot is happier than these isolated thinkers, who stand aside from the game of life and degenerate through the separation … If we think of ourselves as part of a living … group, we shall find life a little fuller … For to give life a meaning one must have a purpose larger and more enduring than one’s self.

If … a thing has significance only through its relation as part to a larger whole, then, though we cannot give a metaphysical and universal meaning to all life in general, we can say of any life in the particular that its meaning lies in its relation to something larger than itself … ask the father of sons and daughters “What is the meaning of life?” and he will answer you very simply: “Feeding our family.”[iii]

Perhaps this is the best we can do to alleviate C’s worries. It may be a simple answer, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a profound one.


[i] Will Durant, On the meaning of life (New York: Ray Long & Richard R. Smith, 1932), 124-25.
[ii] Durant, On the meaning of life, 125-26.
[iii] Durant, On the meaning of life, 126-28.

Is America on the Verge of Civil War?

Image result for american civil war images of dead

“Is America on the Verge of Civil War?

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, July 7, 2016.)

While the idea may sound absurd, it happened just a few generations ago. The industrial north and the slave-holding, agrarian south couldn’t agree on, among other things, the extension of slavery into new states, as both sides didn’t want the other to gain a congressional voting advantage. A series of compromises over many years maintained the delicate balance, but gradually the two sides became more partisan, the rhetoric more divisive, and civil discourse eventually disappeared. Soon violence would be used to adjudicate their disputes, with the south firing the first shot. Within four years 700,000 Americans were dead, thousands more injured, homeless, widowed or orphaned. If that proportion of Americans were killed today, about 8 million Americans would die. The south thought that slavery and the lifestyle it provided were worth dying and killing for … and die and kill they did.

The parallels between the period that led up to the Civil War in America and the situation today are striking. Today the basic functions of government—filling judicial vacancies including those on the Supreme Court, passing budgets, maintaining infrastructure, paying our bills—are stymied by disagreements over abortion, marriage, contraception, gun control, diplomacy, climate change, immigration, taxes, race relations and more. And these disagreements, like those preceding the American civil war, take on a regional flavor. The citizens of coastal and northeastern states are generally more educated, liberal and progressive, those of midwestern and southern states typically less educated, and more conservative and reactionary.

Ideally, these moral and political disagreements would be resolved through rational discourse. Members of the legislative and executive branches, informed by experts and the best available scientific evidence, would carefully and conscientiously consider the truth about issues. Subsequently, they would exchange ideas with their colleagues and then follow the most prudent course that served both the national and international interest. But in reality representatives who want to be re-elected act in their own self-interest—generally accomplished by appeasing an ignorant constituency or a monied special interest.

In other words, most representatives aren’t interested in the national or international interest; rather they are self-interested. If opposition to gun control, immigration reform, environmental protection aids their re-election, they will oppose such measures no matter how collectively good they might be. And if they don’t get their way, they won’t compromise. Instead, they will not approve judges or budgets or threaten to shut down government or default on the nation’s debt obligations to get their way. They will actually threaten to undermine the world economy because, for example, their constituency doesn’t want contraceptives distributed or people to have access to health-care!

Representatives should know better. After all, given their place in the economic order, it’s counterproductive to risk a world economic collapse over contraceptives or their citizens health-care. But to be re-elected they must pretend to care about keeping contraceptives from sexually active teenagers, or health-care from poor people since many of their votes come from people who hold medieval views about sex or hate poor people. It’s also senseless for the elite to undermine the judiciary, as the wealthy benefit most from the rule of law and social stability. But if not approving judges is what some special interest wants, then, by all means, reduce the efficiency of the courts in order to be re-elected.

In fact, why not demonize government altogether if that helps get you get re-elected? Tell your constituency you hate government, just don’t mention that government includes police, firefighters, national guard, military, FBI, CIA, CDC or the very government that you are working for! Tell people to trust private corporations, for surely Monsanto and Exxon Mobil have your interests at heart more so than FDR did when he created social security or LBJ did when he lobbied for Medicare and Medicaid. Now I understand that the rich who fund campaigns don’t want to pay taxes or have their businesses regulated, but by demonizing government as a means to this end they weaken the foundation of their own wealth and power. They undermine government and the rule of law at their peril.

The combination of a corrupt political/economic system, demonization of government, rampant economic and social equality and an uninformed or misinformed citizenry is a toxic brew. It is the root cause, for example, of the current Donald Trump phenomena in which the dissatisfied masses support a uniquely unqualified individual for the office of the American Presidency. Trump is obviously unqualified for the office of the presidency in every conceivable way—from his personality and moral character to his psychological instability, to his lack of experience and knowledge of virtually anything relevant to the job. Trump is a poster boy of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias in which the ignorant assume they are knowledgeable about things of which they are ignorant. Many of his supporters no doubt suffer from a similar malady.

And while the American Psychiatric Association prohibits its members from offering a psychiatric diagnosis of a public official without their having conducted an exam on that person, I’m not a member so I’ll take my shot. (I have studied abnormal psychology in some detail.) I’d say a cursory glance at Mr. Trump reveals that he suffers severely from a number of psychological maladies including bipolar disorder, narcissistic personality disorder, and quite probably borderline personality disorder. He also suffers psychologically from the lack of sleep he brags about. Among the big 5 personality traits, he would be rated very high on neuroticism and low on emotional stability. His mafia connections run deep and he most likely laundered money through his Russian connections.

Putting such an unstable individual at the helm of the nuclear arsenal is just one unintended consequence (and a particularly scary one) of a broken political system, especially today’s dysfunctional, obstructionist Republican party. The Republican party, especially its Tea Party wing, is, in fact, a Confederate party, a white, racist party whose power is most prominent in the American south. As the basic functions of democratic government are eroding, the ignorant look for a strongman to save them. Needless to say, this does not bode well for the republic or for international peace and prosperity.

Another way of looking at the American situation reveals that the society is caught in a paradox that game theorists call an n-person prisoner’s dilemma. The essence of this paradox is that all of us would do better if we all cooperated—by having universal health-care, acting on climate change, minimizing environmental pollution, reducing or eliminating nuclear arsenals, abandoning the use of antibiotics for livestock, fixing the infrastructure, etc.—but groups who profit producing weapons, refining oil, polluting the environment, selling health insurance or not paying taxes do better if they never cooperate, at least in the short-term. Thus we live in a state of political warfare rather than a more cooperative society like Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland or the Netherlands.

The key to escaping this prisoner’s dilemma is to penalize those who don’t abide by the social contract, those who don’t cooperate with the rest of us. This works pretty well for petty criminals who steal $100 from the quick shop, but it doesn’t work well for forcing cooperative behavior from bankers, financiers, CEOs and the corrupt politicians who do their bidding. When billions of dollars are stolen or billions of dollars of taxes go unpaid, there are no repercussions. No one is guarding the guardians—and your AR-15 won’t save you. When weapons manufacturers, oil companies, or the meat or insurance industries oppose measures that serve the common good, they win and the common good loses.

There is little hope that much can be done about all this, since justice would demand that the many prominent citizens, politicians, financiers, and others serve jail time, and a majority of those in prison would be released and given a basic income as recompense for the injustice they have probably been subject to since birth. The little thieves go to jail, while the big thieves get bonuses. The wealthy and powerful want to undermine government’s ability to regulate, that’s why they rail against regulation. What they really don’t want is for government, the collective power of the people, to regulate their wealth and power. They want to be able to pollute the environment, profit from selling assault rifles or deny people health care.

So what can be done? Perhaps the US government can become less corrupt like those of the Scandinavian countries, but I wouldn’t bet on it. A more radical solution, but one I have suggested many times on this blog, is for future technologies to rewire our brains so that humans will become more cooperative and intelligent. In addition, we would also need the moral courage to utilize such technology. This is, I believe, our best hope.

But I’d actually bet that humans will destroy themselves, except that if I won that bet I wouldn’t be around to collect. So instead I’ll keep hoping that our descendants will find ways to augment their moral and intellectual faculties. For either, we evolve or we will die.

Christopher Hitchens DID NOT Convert on His Deathbed!

Christopher Hitchens

I just read David Frum’s recent piece in the Atlantic, “Betraying The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.” The article provides a scathing review of the Christian apologist Larry Taunton’s new book: The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist. Frum’s takedown of Taunton is so devastating that I will let the aforementioned article speak for itself. (Frum is a well-known conservative political commentator and former speechwriter for American President George W. Bush.)

Taunton’s book claims that Hitchens was considering converting to Christianity at the end of his life. (Taunton’s outrageous claim provides evidence for the idea that people generally believe what they want to believe despite all evidence to the contrary.) He bases this astonishing claim on his interpretation of a few conversations he had with Hitchens. Not only is this evidence anecdotal, but it contradicts Hitchens’ very public and forceful claims to the contrary. At the end of his life Hitchens could not have been more direct in rejecting the idea of a deathbed conversion as the videos below show.

Viewing any of the above videos should put Taunton’s nonsense to rest. As for Hitchens’ views of religion in general, they are set out clearly in his magnum opus:  God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. The idea that Hitchens would reject his lifelong views at the end of his life is preposterous. Taunton may wish that Hitchens had converted in order to make Taunton feel good about his own irrational beliefs, but wishing does not make it so.

Of course religious stories about the deathbed conversions of atheists and agnostics are legendary. Thomas Paine, atheist and a prominent figure in the American revolution, was said to have had such a conversion. End of life conversions stories have also been told about the great philosopher David Hume and the contemporary philosopher Antony Flew. The most famous deathbed conversion story is that of Charles Darwin, but even the religious site Answers in Genesis acknowledges that this story isn’t true.

All of these conversion stories express the sentiment of the aphorism “there are no atheists in foxholes.” The idea is that in times of extreme stress or when facing death people are more likely to believe in, or hope for, divine help. But there are problems with the aphorism. First, the aphorism isn’t true, for clearly many people die as atheists. Second, even if the aphorism were true and foxholes were populated exclusively by theists, that says nothing whatsoever about whether theism is true. Moreover, if true the aphorism really reveals that the source of religion is fear. And that doesn’t reflect well on religion, although it has made it a very profitable endeavor.

The reasons that motivate the religious to believe in deathbed conversions are obvious. Some believers just can’t accept that others are reject the gods; some find atheism threatening because it causes believers self-doubt; and others hate that they can’t force heathens to agree with them. But whatever the reasons, believers often find comfort by telling themselves that atheists convert at the end of their life.

But this is all so pathetic. Even if Darwin, Hume or Hitchens converted at the end of their lives—which they didn’t—so what? This would have no bearing on the truth of theism. Apollo, Zeus, Allah or Yahweh either exist or they don’t. If theists are really confident about their beliefs, why would they care that others convert? Are believers so insecure in their beliefs that they must invent stories about other people agreeing with them? Surely these deathbed conversion stories appeal to believers because believers have doubts.

But perhaps the deepest reason these false deathbed conversion stories resonate with believers is that help believers repress what to them is a terrifying idea—that that most of what passes for their cherished belief is just superstitious nonsense.

Summary of Thomas Gray’s: “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”

Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is one of “the best-known and best-loved poems in the English.” For each of its stanzas I provide [in brackets] a brief explanation of its meaning which may not be clear to a modern ear.

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

[Someone has died; the cows are coming down the meadow; the farmer is coming home; and now the speaker has the world to himself.]

Now fades the glimm’ring landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

[The landscape is fading away; the air is quiet except for the buzz of insects and the bells around the necks of livestock.]

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow’r
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wand’ring near her secret bow’r,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

[An owl is hooting, probably from a church tower, and disturbed by the presence of someone, probably the speaker.]

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

[The simple country folks are dead and lying in their graves in the churchyard.]

The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

[Things that usually wake people from sleep will not wake the dead.]

For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.

[All the pleasures of life that the dead can no longer experience.]

Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow’d the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!

[All the things these dead people did while they were alive.]

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the poor.

[We shouldn’t mock the simple lives that these dead peasants lived.]

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

[Don’t make fun of the dead, for you will be dead one day too.]

Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
If Mem’ry o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where thro’ the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.

[Don’t blame the dead if they don’t have fancy monuments for gravestones.]

Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

[No fancy urn or bust will bring back anyone from the dead; no honors make death better.]

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d,
Or wak’d to ecstasy the living lyre.

[Maybe these dead had passions, ruled empires, or played music.]

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repress’d their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

[Knowledge is like a collection of pages that get filled as time goes on; but the dead never get to see the pages now being written; and their potential is frozen in death.]

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

[Many gems and flowers are unseen; many heroic lives are never recognized.]

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.

[Some of the dead stood up to tyrants, were brilliant like Milton, or wretched as Cromwell.]

Th’ applause of list’ning senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib’d alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.

[(The above three stanzas run together.)The dead’s situation in life prevented them from receiving approval, and made it impossible for them to avoid fear. Instead they died unknown because of their poverty. They also didn’t have time to do what it takes to get remembered in history, or to commit crimes like killing kings or being merciless. And they had no time to use fancy language or be inspired by the Muses.]

Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn’d to stray;
Along the cool sequester’d vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.

[These dead lived far from the city, and didn’t make a lot of noise in their lives.]

Yet ev’n these bones from insult to protect,
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

[Their memorials may not be fancy, but they can cause us to pause.]

Their name, their years, spelt by th’ unletter’d muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.

[Their memorials were inscribed by the illiterate, who are ironically muses teaching the simple folk to be prepared for their own deaths.]

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resign’d,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing, ling’ring look behind?

[Who will give up life without looking back longingly at what they are leaving behind.]

On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires.

[We die best with our loved ones at our side, and nature cries from the grave that our passions live on.]

For thee, who mindful of th’ unhonour’d Dead
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,

Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
“Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.

[(The above two stanzas run together.) The speaker is aware of the dead so he is remembering them in this poem. What would a villager say about the speaker after the speaker died? The villager would say he saw the speaker hurrying through the grass to watch the sun go down.]

“There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

[And the villager would say he saw the speaker sitting under a tree looking at a brook.]

“Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Mutt’ring his wayward fancies he would rove,
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or craz’d with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.

[And the villager would say he saw the speaker rambling in the woods.]

“One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill,
Along the heath and near his fav’rite tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;

[And the villager would say that he missed seeing the speaker in his usual places.]

“The next with dirges due in sad array
Slow thro’ the church-way path we saw him borne.
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay,
Grav’d on the stone beneath yon aged thorn.”

[And the villager says that saw that the speaker had died.]

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frown’d not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy mark’d him for her own.

[This is Gray’s epitaph. It says he was a young person of humble birth, a scholar and a poet, who experienced depression.]

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heav’n did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear,
He gain’d from Heav’n (’twas all he wish’d) a friend.

[He was generous and sincere; he fought his depression, and heaven sent him a friend.]

No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)
The bosom of his Father and his God.

[Don’t concern yourself with his good and bad points, for now he is resting, hopefully in eternal life with his god.]

Summary of David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech at Kenyon College

Below is a summary of and commentary on David Foster Wallace‘s (1962 – 2008) famous commencement speech: “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.” Its themes include solipsism, loneliness, monotony, 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 the 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 consider that 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. In contrast, 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.”

In particular, 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. For 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 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 this 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 young graduates. It will be their life “day after week after month after year.” But we can choose to be upset or frustrated about the store or the traffic, or we can reject this natural default setting. Instead, we can 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’s 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.” (Jean-Paul Sartre offered 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. Yet

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.

Wallace concludes:

… 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 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; that real education is a lifelong process; and 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.