David Foster Wallace began his widely discussed and recently published (This is Water) commencement address at Kenyon College in May 2005 with a parable. In the parable two young fish happen to meet an older fish that says to them “How’s the water?” The two young fish swim on a bit until one says to the other “What the hell’s the water?”
Wallace writes: “The point of the story is that the most important, obvious realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about.”
To the graduating students he says that the really significant education they have received isn’t “really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.” Later he adds this 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.”
He says that in his experience the most dangerous consequence of an academic education is the tendency to “over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right of front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.” It’s the water parable again.
Much of the talk is a warning to the students about what adult life is really like. “Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.”
Wallace then proceeds to unpack what that means. You get up, you go to work, you are there eight or ten hours, you are tired and exhausted and now you are stuck in traffic on the drive home, and then you have supper if you are lucky enough to have someone prepare it, otherwise you stop at the market and try to find something to eat and wait a while longer in the check out line, and get back on the freeway, where the traffic is as bad as it was when you got off, and then you try to unwind a bit after your lean cuisine, whereupon you hit the sack early because you have to get up early again the next day and go through it all again.
“Everyone here has done this, of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates actual life routine, day after week after month after year….The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in.”
“This I submit is the freedom of real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.”
For Wallace being educated is being able to recognize the importance of attention and awareness and discipline and he adds “being able to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty unsexy ways every day.” These are not our default settings. They have to be learned and the learning isn’t easy and it is readily forgotten in the midst of all the distractions that usually take control of our lives.
Wallace concludes that his remarks (“stuff”) isn’t your normal inspirational, optimistic, commencement speech. He reminds the students again that the real value of their education has little to do with knowledge “and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: This is water.”
Even if his remarks are far from cheerful, they are pretty inspirational in my book. Even more, they are true.