Commencement Speech

How to be a human according to David Foster Wallace

 Living in the “day-to-day trenches of adult life” requires awareness and compassion, according to a Commencement address David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005.  To see a Youtube video of the commencement speech CLICK HERE

Wry and direct and humorous, the address was subsequently published as book with the title This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered On A Significant Occasion, On Living A Compassionate Life.

Here are five themes from the speech:

 Question your own beliefs:

 Wallace observes, “…a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way…”

Lifelong learning helps to relieve us of our baselines convictions and assumptions that we never even knew we had.  Transcending our narrow point of view allows us to inhabit a broader world with more possibilities.

 Maturation develops us from narcissism to connection:

 Our perceptions of the world outside reside within us, so we automatically hold ourselves to be the center of the universe.  With experience we have the opportunity to develop compassion for the experiences of others, and begin to see our place in a wider order of things. However, developing such awareness requires a continual effort toward mindfulness.

 Stay open to the present moment:

 “It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive,” notes Wallace, “instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head.”  He quotes the aphorism that, “The mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master.”

He continues, “This is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”

 You get to decide what to worship:

 Wallace asserts, ”In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. 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. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”

 Be good to others:

 To be less self-centered and more connected to others we have the opportunity to choose compassion over and over again.

One of our greatest freedoms is the opportunity to activate our attention, awareness and discipline in order to truly be able “to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”


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