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Review: David Foster Wallace - This Is Water

Updated on July 25, 2017
Illustration by Harry Aung
Illustration by Harry Aung | Source

An invitation to give a college commencement speech is thought of as an honor and an opportunity; an opportunity to somehow deliver to young people words that will not only stay with them for a lifetime but open their eyes to the "real world" and give an alternative to their current view of reality. I've read David Foster Wallace's 2005 commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College at least ten times and is one of the most influential pieces I've read. It's a speech you pass on and continue to quote from for years. This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life was published posthumously in 2009. The styling and thoughts, while seemingly simple and obvious drive home the point that there are others to care about outside, "our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms."

Two Young Fish

Two young fish are 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?" The two young fish swim on for a bit. Eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?" This is how David Foster Wallace opens his speech, noting the obvious standard in US speeches to start with a parable-ish story. But it sets the theme of the whole speech. That being, most obivious and important realities are the hardest ones to talk about. He does away with any mention of how a degree is supposed to move you forward and give you knowledge to apply to the world. Instead he makes point that the degree isn't so much reflective of the capacity to think but the choice of what to think about. This may seem simple but Wallace stresses the value of the obvious.

Center of the Universe

Wallace continues by making a point that everything we know about our universe is right there in front of us, beamed to a monitor or TV. And deep down, while we may not show it, we think of ourselves as the center of the universe. All other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to us but we can only focus on our own, because they are forefront, urgent and real. Wallace says there is hope by realizing our hardwired default setting of self centeredness and resetting that system. We need to shift our views and filter them through a new lens and break the "lens of self."

Day to Day Rat Race

Shifting gears but sticking to the theme Wallace almost sympathizes with the graduates in telling them they have no idea of the day to day rat race that awaits them. It is this obvious scenario which is never discussed in commencement speeches. He gives an example of day-to-day life, including in fine detail of early rising, traffic to work, eight to ten hour work days, stopping for groceries for dinner, bad store lighting, long register lines, a slow drive home, go to bed and do it all over again. Graduates have seen their parents go through this but have never experienced it on their own. We get stuck in this day-to-day because our default setting has us standing in the center of the universe and that our own feelings and needs should dictate the surrounding priorities. But...we have that choice to focus on the obvious.

Shifting to the Obvious

Wallace points that day-to-day scenario through a different lens. The obvious one. Why get mad sitting in traffic when you realize everybody else is unhappy. Why yell at the driver that cut you off and is weaving in and out of traffic. Maybe his kid is sick and he's trying to get home. The long line at the supermarket may be filled with people who have tougher lives than you or I. Some of these people may be harboring horrific childhood memories and it's all they can do to keep from jumping off a building. Wallace is stressing the awareness and to give yourself that choice to view situations differently. That is the real education he is referring to throughout the speech. It's an ability to see things through other's situations and sacrifice our own views and thoughts to show kindness and caring. The real education is comprised of awareness and attention and discipline.

You have a choice.

Wallace concludes his speech reminding the graduates they have a choice throughout life to sometimes reset that default switch. "The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing." He reminds them that the simple and obvious is all around us and to keep telling yourself..."This is water. This is water."

Dr. Suess

It's almost become an automatic gift for graduates to receive the Dr. Seuss book, "Oh The Places You'll Go." But my copy of Wallace's "This is Water" is always within reach. I find new meaning with each read. Graduates may not totally understand the lessons in this speech/book but after a few years in the day to day real world they may need to reset their default setting.


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