Five year ago, David Foster Wallace – American philosopher – took his own life. Wallace is more commonly known as an author; five years after his death his 2005 commencement address – an articulation of his understanding of life – at Kenyon College stands as his greatest work. Visit Brain Pickings for a great recap of the address, including the audio, and find a pdf here.
1) He begins with a metaphor. Like all great teachers, Wallace understands the human desire for storytelling, for the human psyche’s ability to retain a story when facts and arguments slip away.
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?
2) A lesson in the default self-centeredness of human existence.
…everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence […] Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center 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. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
We live our lives and interact with the world around us living a fiction to everyone else. Our eyes only see in one direction, placing us at the center of the Universe.
3) The first step in doing something about this self-centeredness begins with control.
Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand […] a much deeper, more serious idea: 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 […] Think of the old cliche about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.
The Buddha described our monkey mind in this way: “Just as a monkey swinging through the trees grabs one branch and lets it go only to seize another, so too, that which is called thought, mind or consciousness arises and disappears continually both day and night.”
4) After amusing (or not-so amusing, depending on the amount of time you spend in the circumstances Wallace describes) examples of the “boredom, routine, and petty frustration” that accompanies adult life, Wallace returns to the idea of choice, and the reality that our choices over time become objects of worship and veneration. Money, your body, sexual allure, power, intelligence are all worshiped, and each in their own way leave you feeling empty.
There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
It is in choosing to worship a “spiritual-type thing” that gives rise to what Wallace describes as the “sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
5) He concludes with the root of all spiritual awakenings and journeys: freedom from fear.
…the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most previous you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and displaying. 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.
What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth.