Graphic done by Mario Arasakumar
On a frigid January morning in 1961, the suave, charismatic John Fitzgerald Kennedy stood on the Eastern portico of Capitol Hill and delivered his inaugural address to the nation. Though he spoke softly, his words carried the stick – and his dogged resolve – as he pledged to fellow nations that America would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”
With idealistic vernacular, the newly elected president suddenly inspired a global audience to stand united against impending obstacles, namely the consolidation of communist regimes. With the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Kennedy reminded listeners, the next era could be either the saviour of men or a harbinger of their demise. Concluding this articulacy, Kennedy asked his fellow citizens to sacrifice for country, and peoples of the world to sacrifice for humankind.
Inspirational speeches like these are revered as instruments that evoke visceral reactions from impressionable audiences. They are used in times of need by people of power: Martin Luther King for civil rights, George Patton before D-Day, Lincoln at Gettysburg. Words are the most potent form of ideological ammunition. And as such, speeches have been perfected to arouse specific epiphanic emotions.
Nowadays, however, speeches are more frequently used to pedagogically pedal weighty life advice to graduates. Highly anticipated commencement addresses from orators like Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, and Barack Obama seek to deliver hope and excitement to graduates. The haplessness of these occasions is that they often neglect the inclusion of practical advice for the inevitably unglamorous parts of life.
Life’s discouraging moments are often omitted as speeches delivered by prodigious figures harness oratory excellence to produce awe-inspiring monologues. They often follow a conventional recipe: an edifying allegory followed by carefully crafted analysis and anecdotal follow-up. With this formula, speakers electrify crowds about what promises to be ‘the most exciting chapter of life’. That is, until David Foster Wallace took an unforeseen road trip to Gambier, Ohio.
In 2005, Wallace, extolled for Infinite Jest, his 1100-page magnum opus, delivered a commencement speech at Kenyon College in Ohio – a small, nondescript liberal arts school. Wallace later published this speech as This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.
In this idiosyncratic manifesto, Wallace begins with a parable in which two fish are swimming along when an elder fish greets them and asks, “Morning boys. How’s the water?” The two fish swim past, abstaining from response temporarily until one fish turns to the other and asks bemusedly, “What the hell is water?”
Wallace uses this comic tale to claim that he is not “the older, wiser fish” that omnisciently knows, and will (or can) teach the audience, everything about life. Rather, that the most obvious things, like water to fish, are often most difficult to discuss. In other words, the most important parts of life after graduation are never mentioned in convocation speeches – or in virtually any dialogue or literature for that matter. Instead, practically all speeches focus on the glamorous, exciting prospects of life and refrain from “the day-to-day trenches of adult existence.”
With this introductory note, Wallace ventures into unchartered territory as he begins a philosophical fugue confronting the often-challenging mundanity of adult life. Being in meaningless routine can be straining, and the real obstacle lies in changing how you think about your life and surroundings. Challenging the cliché that a degree is really about “teaching you how to think”, Wallace argues that the benefit of university lies not in teaching one how to think but making the choice of what to think about.
He envisions a hypothetical situation devoid of all pleasantries. A worker leaves the office after a stressful day and sits in traffic while picking-up groceries for dinner – because, of course they forgot to on the weekend – only to waste time in the blindingly-fluorescent supermarket while being acoustically bombarded by soul-killing elevator music. The significance, Wallace posits, is that while students may be able to relate to frustrating experiences like these, it has yet to become part of routine “day after week after month after year.”
An enlightening theme throughout the speech is that to thrive, one needs to challenge the default human setting that places oneself at the centre of the universe. Take, for example, that the father in the car beside you cut you off because he is rushing his wounded son to the hospital. Or, that the maddeningly robotic checkout lady is working an unfulfilling job whose daily tedium defies comprehension. Letting these annoyances fester can bring humans to the brink and they will, inevitably, eat you alive. Gratitude and empathy are but a few traits needed to appreciate life’s light and dark patches, and, without them, the banal parts of life can seem miserable.
The latter component of Wallace’s speech deals with the idea of belief being a driving factor in life. As Ralph Waldo Emerson so elegantly put it, “Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual.” Through yet another fable, Wallace opines that in the real world there is no such thing as atheism or non-belief.
“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…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…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."
Awareness. Awareness of our existence, of our actions and our beliefs, and most importantly, our ‘default settings’. This is the true goal of education. Wallace reminds listeners that nothing said in this speech was astoundingly novel, “they have all been bundled up as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, and parables.” The difficulty lies in demystifying these abstract tales and quotes, using their lessons as a compass to navigate the tempest that is life.
Why does every college senior inevitably ask themselves, where did the time go? Or, why does it have to end? These sound eerily similar to questions vacationers ask themselves following a multi-week respite. Respite from what? you may ask. Respite from their sometimes-frustrating routine back home. The continuous nine-to-five, mind-numbing, exhausting schedule. A reality that graduates will soon be faced with.
Wallace was able to articulate these thoughts because he had lived them. He struggled with a mind that searched for meaning in every nook and cranny. His moments of optimism were far outmatched by mental trepidations. And, in 2008, he had exerted all mental stamina and human default settings annexed his mind. David Foster Wallace, a man of infinite complexity, wisdom, and jest, took his own life at the age of 46.
Wallace had the moxie to address Western taboos and impart enormously practical life advice as a result. The dismal trenches of adult life to which he referred will soon be thrust upon graduates. No longer will there be the incessant late nights, morning sleep-ins, and perpetual hedonism that defines most university experiences. When these routines become mere nostalgic artifacts, all graduates must lace their bootstraps and deal with a drastically different life. A life where you finally realize, now being a little older and a bit wiser, this is water.
Find the audio for Wallace’s full speech here.