Commencement speeches are typically filled with banal platitudes and sweepingly “feel good” statements about taking life by the horns. But, late-author David Foster Wallace saw that type of commencement address as a disservice to students, to adults, parents and humans in general.
In 2005, David Foster Wallace addressed the graduating class of Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Titled “This is Water”, Wallace opens the eyes of the young 20-somethings, on the cusp of the “real world” and “actual adulthood”, to the real value of their higher liberal arts education, awareness. Not job-seeking. Not skill building or memorization. Awareness. Of self and environment and others in this world.
This, he believes, is the key to being a happy adult, or at least trying to be.
He opens his speech with, what he calls a “standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories.”
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 [heck] is water?”
For the next 22-captivating-minutes, you’re taken through this beautiful explanation of everything we already know, have thought before and seen, but very rarely hear called out. That’s when you feel uncomfortable, but in the best way possible.
He, simply, starts with the premise that we are all defaulted to constantly being self-centered; because 100% of our experiences are filtered through the immediate subject. “I, me, and my”. We are the lead actors and superstars in our own film called life and any small inconvenience can become a personal slighting.
As DFW explains,
Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way.
It’s far too easy for us to simply fall back into our default settings: where we go through the motions and continue our self-centered storylines.
This is what I love; being reminded that we DO have a choice in everything we do and say and how we act. These choices can make getting through the drab repetitions of daily life, traffic, grocery shopping and the like a lot less stressful and upsetting.
And that’s what is the true worth of four years away in a classroom and separated from reality. So that way, when you’re done, when you graduate, when you move on, to that reality filled with so many boring daily routines, you’ll know how to be conscious.
“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.”
This awareness is ultimately liberating and can lead to so much more happiness just by “being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty little unsexy ways every day.”
Listen to David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” commencement address below.
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