In 2005, David Foster Wallace delivered a speech at Kenyon College. In the years since then his speech has been read or watched by many recent college grads. The reason for this is simple: he is honest. He doesn’t bandy about with the truth, or tell grads that the sky is the limit as so many do. Instead he speaks frankly about what lies ahead. His speech is about the everyday repetition and boredom that we face and the value that a liberal arts education can bring to this tedium. David Foster Wallace challenged his listeners to actively choose what and how we think, because “the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about”. In order to live a full and meaning full life, we must open our minds and escape from “the blind certainty…that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up”.
The first step in this process is “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”. Now that I actually find myself divorced from the academic world that for 17 years was the cradle of my existence I find this speech far more meaningful than when I first read it in the fall of 2012. It can be so easy and simple to view the world through a self-centered lens, and to be negative about all the tedious and repetitive bits of our lives. This speech discusses something I think we all have experienced, that if you think about something a little differently it can change everything.
Our default setting is that feeling that we are one hundred percent certain we know what reality is. This feeling leaves out the fact that every human, all 7.1 billion of us, view the world through a unique set of eyes. Thus, we see different things. In his speech, Wallace says we shouldn’t walk into the supermarket angry and annoyed after a long day of work, and judge the woman in front of us at checkout who is yelling at her son. Maybe, just maybe, that woman is frazzled because her partner is dying of kidney failure and everything she knows coming apart. Compassion should be our first reaction not judgment. We need to step away from our default modes. Misery is not the only way to view the world, we have other options, “if you really learn how to pay attention…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”. When I read this speech I am reminded that it is how you approach a situation that truly makes the experience. An open, positive mind leads to new insights, as well as true compassion for our fellow human beings. We always have to remember that ‘this is water’.