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David Foster Wallace Commencement Speech


David Foster Wallace made it to 30 but not to 50. The only reason I bring this up is because of the concluding paragraph in a commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College, Ohio, in which he said,

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this is 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 making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness – awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”

David Foster Wallace never claimed to be a model human in this commencement speech, which I suggest you read even if you’ve already heard a handful of commencement speeches, but he did have a lucid understanding of his default approach to everyday life.

David Foster Wallace was a cynic. Like me. Like most of you. Cynicism is the default mode for many people, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be escaped. What David Foster Wallace realized, and what he felt was important enough to convey to a class of graduating college kids, was that he had the option to choose how he thought about the world.

For example,

Instead of cursing the fuck out of a slow driver who cut him off on the freeway for no reason other than to slow down even more and make him ride his brakes, David Foster Wallace realized he could invent a more compassionate scenario that filled him with understanding rather than rage.

Maybe this slow-ass driver is tripping off mushrooms and is having an enormous epiphany that he needs to remember for the sake of humanity. Maybe he’s a writer who, after mentally recording this enormous epiphany, will produce a novel that will save thousands of people from giving up on life. Maybe that’s why he cut him off and slowed down, because he’s concentrating, because he’s tripping and trying to remember this enormous epiphany at the same time, and fellow drivers have to be patient with this budding messianic novelist.

I know, I know. Stop laughing at me. This is an oversimplified example that may come off as facetious, but David Foster Wallace’s message is basically this, to be fully aware of how you think about what’s going on around you, and it’s this awareness that gives you mind control.

It’s a simple and meaningful reminder, like telling fish they’re swimming in water with a bunch of other fish like them, but thinking this way, though simple and often taken for granted, has a noticeable impact on you and everyone related to you. Being aware of your default cynicism and making an effort to change the way you think about the world will change your life.

It will.

Your life will be changed.

I don’t like my cynicism, at least not all the time. While I can see how my cynicism is an infinite font of amusement, I can also see how it can make me ill-tempered and, in general, not fun.

Cynicism does protect against sentimentalism, drippiness. I DISLIKE like being sentimental or drippy. I LIKE having a well-seasoned disgust with everything people tend to do because I think most people behave frivolously and realizing this saves me from doing the same frivolous things.

But there have been golden moments in my life when I really feel the goodness in the people around me, frivolity and all, and I understand where they come from, and nothing they do can upset me because, really, there’s nothing to be upset about.

This is my heart. This is my humanity. Being aware of my heart/humanity is thrilling. It makes me act in small and beautiful ways.

I believe that David Foster Wallace also connected with people in small and beautiful ways. He sometimes let his heart guide him rather than his brain. In this way, he had this simple awareness he talked about at Kenyon College.

But David Foster Wallace was also severly depressed. For something like 20 years he had to take a regular dosage of anti-depressants to produce the writing many people love.

Without this medication, depression rendered DFW inactive and self-injurious. In the end, his mind was more powerful, more convincing, more needy than his heart.


Maybe it’s not as charitable, but I often convince myself that rude or otherwise unlikeable people have a terminal illness.  Because wouldn’t you feel like a dick being a jerk to someone who is dealing with imminent death?

September 12, 2010 5:35 pm

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