And we’re all fish.
This is perhaps – oh hell – I’ll go out on a limb – this is the single most important blog post I will ever write.
No. Wait. This is the most important information that you will ever receive from another human being – thank David Foster Wallace – not me. His speech contains the most important information a consciousness could ever receive in this world. It is the basis of a life well-lived. It is the absolute bedrock requirement of understanding your life. A life that carries love, peace, fulfillment, and evolution. It is only the beginning, but it is the necessary first step.
David Foster Wallace wrote this speech and delivered it on May 21, 2005, as a commencement address at Kenyon College, a liberal arts college.
Before you get too skeptical, you must know that David is speaking a truth here that has been repeated by Eastern and Western sages since time began. But he does so in a most accessible and human way. We feel his pain as we are reminded of our own pain, how easily these simple truths are ignored and forgotten in our daily lives. The advice comes in the form of platitudes and clichés because the ideas are so important and often repeated, while ignored. They speak a profound truth that is too easily evaded. But David Foster Wallace speaks plainly and passionately.
And these truths? If we picture ourselves as fish, we must be aware of the water we swim in – our thoughts as we experience the world and bring meaning to it. Many times we are as oblivious to our thoughts, as we can imagine that fish are of the water. Yet we are surrounded by those thoughts and the meanings we attach to them. It is way too easy to ignore our inner environment and just accept our thoughts as brute facts to be simply accepted or endured – like the weather or gravity. That inner environment we make for ourselves, consciously and unconsciously, is the water we swim in. It becomes how we experience our lives.
Nothing exists until we bring that personal product of our thinking and attention, our history, our culture, our family, our shadow side, the collective unconscious, and who knows what else, meaning to it, via our thoughts. But these thoughts are a mashup – what else.
Before we can explore the source of our thoughts and actions, which are often hidden from us, we must confront and become aware of our thoughts and the meaning we bring to our experience. That is our only hope to evolve beyond those thoughts – by exploring their substance and origins. Awareness and choice come first, however.
Here is the brilliant David Foster Wallace:
Here is a PDF version of the speech:
I’ll post two chunks of the speech by David Foster Wallace, that are especially important for me:
“Probably the most dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what’s 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. 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. – – – And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- 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.”
“Because here’s something else that’s 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 worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible 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 own 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 plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are 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 world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the 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 to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center 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 talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”
Metaphors are always an imperfect slice of reality and so is this one. Water is not simply a part of the external environment. You have to be aware of the water and then judge the quality of that water – you are responsible for that water. If you’re swimming in murky and depressing water, you are producing that or allowing other people to have that effect on you and your water.
So number one is awareness of your thoughts and number two – awareness that you are responsible for those thoughts.
Full disclosure. David Foster Wallace killed himself. He struggled with this, as we all do. It is common for the greatest teachers to be the most sensitive – prone to self-destruction. It does not alter the message. In fact, it can make the message and teachings more urgent and more important to be attended to.
Many a brilliant and sensitive teacher has a crisis. Some cross this chasm, as Carl Jung did. Others, like Friedrich Nietzsche, do not. Sensitive people and sensitive souls pay a high price for that quality. I believe we should honor that high price by giving our attention to their lessons and their wisdom. Our attention to these great and sensitive teachers will reward us as we keep alive their ideas and their memory. No death or life should be in vain. The more we pay attention, the greater the evolution.
We all have much to learn and who can afford to ignore some of the most powerful teachers? David Foster Wallace is one of these great teachers. I cannot urge you enough to consider his words in this video.
We are here to change the world.
It is time.