ArtsAutosBooksBusinessEducationEntertainmentFamilyFashionFoodGamesGenderHealthHolidaysHomeHubPagesPersonal FinancePetsPoliticsReligionSportsTechnologyTravel

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.

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • I am DB Cooper profile image

      I am DB Cooper 

      9 years ago from Whereabouts unknown at this time

      It took me forever to track down a full transcript of this speech. I guess once something gets published people get really protective about copyrights. Too bad the book they made out of these speech was annoyingly formatted and incomplete, as it's one of the most inspirational things I've ever read. It saddens me to think we won't get to experience any new thoughts from this brilliant mind.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, hubpages.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)