Being Reminded That This is Water

Recently my wife did a lecture on the writing of David Foster Wallace. I have read one or two things by him, but mostly short stories. DFW is one of “Those Names” in our household. Much like Shakespeare, TMBG, Marvel, The Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, and Sophistitiki, DFW is one of those names in our house that is revered on high. Dr. Wyf is more well read on him than I am, but one piece floors me.

David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, is probably one of the most important speeches of our time.  In this speech, he asks students to look past their default settings to view the world as it is, and to realize that reality is more complex, deep, and important than whatever we can think. That if we stop and take in the vast myriad of possibilities, we will find the world to be a much more beautiful, rich, and heart wrenching place deserving our respect, our love, and most importantly our attention.

DFW calls on the class of 2005, and all those going into the “real” world to be open to the world around them, to pursue knowledge as a road to personal enlightenment and not just for job advancement, and to live in a state of sincerity regardless of ideology.

This has prompted me to look at how I do things. To step back and examine my own processes, and my own default settings – my failures to see past my own ignorance. For me it’s easy to pass my day staring at a screen, visiting the various social networks, and attempting to live vicariously through the 140 character sayings of others. However, that is not living with sincerity in the wold around me. It takes away from my work, my family, my friends. It forces me to view a very complex world through a very self selected set of filters that at the end of the day do not advance my work, my mental state, my relationships.

It’s illusory. It’s the illusion that in some way I have a connection with someone thousands of miles away – sometimes to people that I have never even met. This is the true danger of our society. The idea that I can access the worlds problems at the touch of the button, and sit in my own delusions of grandeur on how I would do something different perpetuates this false notion that we, as a society, are still growing. When in fact, it is quite the opposite. We have stopped growing. We are not innovating. And, we are not moving.

We have allowed ourselves to stick our heads in the sand with the idea that somehow we are more open for it. However, our reality is still that we must look past our own default settings, and to seek a greater awareness of the world around us.

I don’t mean to say that all of the Internet is bad. In fact, I do love it. It’s a great tool to communicate with others, but it is closer to a pager than a telephone. It can never give you the whole story. For that you need to leave the comfort of your chair, turn off your smart phone, and walk outside, go meet up at a diner, and take a walk. Social media can never be a substitute for actual communication. It can only be a handy assistant.

To all of my friends who are graduating, I ask you to remember to take part in the world around you, be fully immersed in the reality of your surroundings, and to remember that you have not even begun to understand the phrase “Day In/Day Out”. Don’t simply grab for the brass ring, but allow yourself to feel the centrifugal force of the ride spinning around as you attempt to stretch out your arm.

I wish you more than luck.

A 9-minute excerpt of “This is Water” commencement speech

List to the full speech here:


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