“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” Philippians 2:4
Last night, I read David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech given at Kenyon College in Ohio. It really didn’t talk about much that I didn’t necessarily know, but at the same time, it was incredibly profound.
I was introduced to Wallace about a year after he committed suicide (the person who introduced me left that part out, so sorry if I spoiled his biography for you), and thus far, I’ve only read a few of his short stories (and this speech, the full text of which is here). I watched a film adaptation of his short story collection, Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, but I won’t count that until I read the collection.
Anyway, this speech. It’s profound, because it is the antithesis of a commencement speech. When I graduated from VFCC, we had a brigadier general come speak and tell us all how we were going to do great things and God was going to go before us and God bless America blah blah blah. You probably had something similar (with a little less God talk if you didn’t go to a Christian College) said to you when you graduated high school and/or college.
Wallace, however, decided to give a bit more than just nice feelings and motivation. He said his speech was about life before death, about being alive enough to see that this is the real world you live in, and what you choose to do about it.
Existentialism shines through here, emphasizing the right of a human to will, to choose, though I don’t think I ever gave it as much serious thought as I did when reading Wallace’s speech. You see, you really CAN decide how you’re going to perceive the world. You’re not a slave to conditioning, not a byproduct of your environment, programmed to act in a certain way just by how we were brought up.
It’s really hard to believe that somedays, though most of those days I think we just don’t want to shoulder the responsibility, because choosing how to respond to this life, in addition to freeing us from our impulses and environment, grants us with a responsibility. We have to understand we’re not the center of the universe, that there are reasons people look lifeless and dead in the checkout line at Wal-Mart, why we’re all ridiculously pissed off by monotony and boredom, even to a point of irrationality.
I kind of wish I’d had Wallace as my graduation speaker, or at least someone who would have let me know about the rat race and deadness everyone seems to live in, because it kind of sneaked up on me. I won’t lie; it was probably something I ignored for quite some time, or someone warned me about and I brushed it off. What did I have to worry about? Life was going to be like college forever. Only it wasn’t. I came into the rat race ready to leave it quickly, only to find myself still in it two years later. In a Christian college, no one enters the rat race (supposedly); we all go into “ministry” which is absolutely NOTHING like the rat race. No, what we do is different! Why would we ever tell someone about the rat race? All the same, I didn’t do anything to alert myself to reality, and reality, being a gentleman, kindly informed as to his nature.
The difference, though, is that I can do something about me. I can say, “This is water. This is it. These people are in the water with me, and they all have things going on just like I do, and I am not the center of the water.” I can remember that I am probably someone else’s stupid, in someone else’s way, and I can do something positive about that. Knowing that I have that ability is a deep comfort, and a great challenge as well.
This is water.