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David Foster Wallace, "Kenyon Commencement Speech, 2005"

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“Kenyon Commencement Speech, 2005″
by David Foster Wallace
“This speech was originally transcribed and posted at Marganlia.org until recently. Here is the originally transcribed version.”

“If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I’d advise you to go ahead,
because I’m sure going to. In fact I’m gonna [mumbles while pulling up
his gown and taking out a handkerchief from his pocket].) Greetings
["parents"?] and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005.
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?”

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the
deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story turns out
to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but
if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older
fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am
not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the
most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to
see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is
just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches
of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death
importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely
morning.

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m
supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to
explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value
instead of just a material payoff. So let’s talk about the single most
pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a
liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with
knowledge as it is about “teaching you how to think”. If you’re like me
as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a
bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to
think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college this good
seems like proof that you already know how to think. But I’m going to
posit to you that the liberal arts cliché turns out not to be insulting
at all, because the really significant education in thinking that we’re
supposed to get in a place like this isn’t really about the capacity to
think, but rather about the choice of what to think about. If your total
freedom of choice regarding what to think about seems too obvious to
waste time discussing, I’d ask you to think about fish and water, and to
bracket for just a few minutes your scepticism about the value of the
totally obvious.

Here’s another didactic little story. There are these two guys sitting
together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is
religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the
existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the
fourth beer. And the atheist says: “Look, it’s not like I don’t have
actual reasons for not believing in God. It’s not like I haven’t ever
experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got
caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally
lost and I couldn’t see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it:
I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out ‘Oh, God, if there is a
God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m gonna die if you don’t help
me.’” And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all
puzzled. “Well then you must believe now,” he says, “After all, here you
are, alive.” The atheist just rolls his eyes. “No, man, all that was
was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way
back to camp.”

It’s easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts
analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different
things to two different people, given those people’s two different
belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from
experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere
in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s
interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is
fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these
individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come
from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward
the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just
hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the
culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not
actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there’s the
whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in
his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything
to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious
people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too.
They’re probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of
us. But religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s
unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an
imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked
up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how
to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant.
To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my
certainties. Because 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, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to
be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience
supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe;
the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely
think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so
socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is
our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about
it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute
centre 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. And
so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to
you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about
compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is
not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of
somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default
setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and
interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust
their natural default setting this way are often described as being
“well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how
much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual
knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the
most dangerous thing about an academic education–least in my own
case–is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to
get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying
attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to
what is going on inside me.

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay
alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant
monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty
years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that
the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually
shorthand for 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.
Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you
will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an
excellent servant but a terrible master”.

This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually
expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit
coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always
shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the
truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they
pull the trigger.

And I submit that 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. That
may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The
plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what
“day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of
adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches.
One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The
parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking
about.

By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up
in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate
job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day
you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and
have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack
early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all
again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had
time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after
work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the
end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting
to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get
there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time
of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some
grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with
soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place
you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to
wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the
stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all
these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera,
cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you
get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t
enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So
the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating.
But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the
register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and
meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a
prestigious college.

But anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay
for your food, and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is
the absolute voice of death. Then you have to take your creepy, flimsy,
plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that
pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded,
bumpy, littery parking lot, and then you have to drive all the way home
through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et
cetera.

Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of
you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after
year. But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly
meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is
that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of
choosing is gonna come in. 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. And who are all these people in my way? And look
at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and
dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how
annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in
the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair
this is.

Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious liberal arts form of
my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic being
disgusted about all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUV’s and Hummers
and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, 40-gallon tanks
of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious
bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly
selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest [responding here to loud
applause] (this is an example of how NOT to think, though) most
disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate
and aggressive drivers. And I can think about how our children’s
children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel, and probably
screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and
disgusting we all are, and how modern consumer society just sucks, and
so forth and so on.

You get the idea. If I choose to think this way in a store and on the
freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so
easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural
default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring,
frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the
automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and
that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the
world’s priorities.

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think
about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles
stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these
people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and
now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered
them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or
that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father
whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s
trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more
legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way. Or I can
choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in
the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I
am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and
painful lives than I do.

Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m
saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to
just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort,
and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you
just flat out won’t want to.

But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can
choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady
who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not
usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the
hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady
is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just
yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape
problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none
of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what
you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what
reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you,
like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and
miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will
know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to
experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not
only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the
stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s
capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to
be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and
what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship. Because here’s
something else that’s weird but true: 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. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s
been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the
skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up
front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will
need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship
your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a
fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing
about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s
that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of
worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and
more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever
being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on
your default settings, because 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 centre 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 precious you will
not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and
achieving…. 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.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly
inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What
it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of
rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of
it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some
finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about
morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after
death.

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

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.”

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the
adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché
turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime.
And it commences: now. I wish you way more than luck.”



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