David Foster Wallace, American novelist and short story writer, is a person I was unfamiliar with until I recently heard his Kenyon College commencement address, which took place in 2005. After hearing it, I’m completely besotted. In the words of Emery Allen, “I think I fall in love a little bit with anyone who shows me their soul.”
It’s an intimate yet public exploration of self and selfhood, which can be summarised in the simple parable he uses to open with and the witty, almost self-effacing explanation which follows.
“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?’
“This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre. But if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish.
“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.”
He states that while he’s supposed to talk about why the graduates’ liberal arts education has meaning, he would prefer to discuss the cliché that “liberal arts education is not so much about filing you up with knowledge, as it is teaching you how to think”.
“If you’re like me [when I was a] student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think… but I’m going to posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.”
Continuing his point, David employs a second story of two guys discussing the existence of God – one religious and one an atheist. The atheist explains that it’s not like he hasn’t tried praying. He says that he was lost in a blizzard once, fell to his knees and cried out, “Oh God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard and I’m gonna die if you don’t help me.” The religious guy is puzzled, and says, “Well then you must believe now. After all, here you are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.”
He uses the story not to say who was right or wrong, rather to explain that the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people’s two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. “The religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.”
David explains his life view is that teaching someone how to think really means just to be a little less arrogant: to question the beliefs you are automatically sure of. To be conscious of, and to challenge the “natural, basic self-centeredness” of life.
“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.
“It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head… ‘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.
“Most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer… Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider.
“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 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.
Towards the end of his speech David perhaps unknowingly gives a little more insight into his own personal battles, being a longtime sufferer of depression who eventually committed suicide at the age of 46.
“The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe even 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. 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.”