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Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life
The world doesn’t revolve around you.
That’s the gist of what David Foster Wallace wants you to never forget.
He explains why in his beautiful 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech “This Is Water.”
Who Should Read “This Is Water”? And Why?
If we are to take these questions literally, then the most appropriate answer – in our opinion – is “nobody because it’s a speech and it was always meant to be one.”
If, however, the question we are to discern from the general title is “who should hear ‘This Is Water,’ and why?” then the answer abruptly changes: “everybody because this speech can change your life.”
Especially if you are young and inexperienced.
About David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace was an American postmodern author, “one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last twenty years.”
He attracted attention already with his first novel, “The Broom of the System,” but it was his second novel, “Infinite Jest,” that brought him nationwide fame and made him one of the most revered authors of the modern age.
He left his third novel, “The Pale King,” incomplete; even so, the book was published in 2011 and nominated for a Pulitzer Prize the year after.
After struggling for years with depression, alcoholism, and drug addiction, on September 12, 2008, Wallace committed suicide at the relatively young age of 46.
“This Is Water PDF Summary”
“This Is Water” is a book-length essay which Little, Brown and Company published in April 2009, half a year after David Foster Wallace decided to take his own life.
The book is, basically, an elongated version of the commencement speech the famous author gave on May 21, 2005, to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College.
As opposed to the book which was criticized as being too stretched for its own sake, the commencement speech has been widely praised and was even selected by the “Time” magazine as one of the 10 best commencement speeches in history.
So, we’ve opted to summarize the latter, sharing everybody’s opinion that the book makes the very same points, but in a rather overextended manner, which bereaves quite a few of them of their power.
As for the speech – it can change (and, in fact, has changed) numerous lives. And if you want to, you can hear David Foster Wallace now-poignant delivery of it below:
After greeting the students and congratulating them, Wallace begins his speech with a memorable parable, as he says, “the standard requirement of US commencement speeches”:
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
The point of the fish story,” Wallace quickly points out, “is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.
In other words, we are all living in the water we can’t see or don’t know, unaware of its existence, but, still, somehow absolutely confident that our worldview is the correct one.
Well, Wallace says, we are wrong for most of the time.
And it’s the job of a liberal arts education to tell us that we are wrong: not by filling our heads with unnecessary knowledge, but by making us aware of the fact that there is water around us.
Education is not about facts – it’s about humility.
It doesn’t mean knowing when Caesar was born; it means “learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”
Real education teaches us “to be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about [ourselves] and [our] certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that [we] tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.”
Educated people are, to put it in a word or so, conscious enough to be alive and infuse some meaning in the ultimately boring and unfulfilling lives almost everybody is doomed to lead.
And these lives are the lives nobody talks about in commencement speeches!
An average adult day isn’t even remotely comparable to the ones promised in self-help books and entrepreneur manuals.
An average adult day means getting up in the morning, going to “your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job,” working hard for eight or ten hours, and ending up so tired and stressed by the end of the day that all you want to do is just have a good supper and “hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again.”
And it gets even worse from there, because there’s a high chance that you don’t have your lunch prepared (because of your busy life) and because this means getting stuck in traffic while going to the supermarket where you end up stuck in the aisle together with numerous people who have experienced the same day as you.
Now, there are two paths you can go from there: you can choose to think that it’s all about you and be angry at everyone or understand that you’re just a little drop in the ocean and that everybody has some problem (or thousand).
Most of the people operate at the former, “default setting,” and don’t even think that there are other people who experience at least the same things as them.
But,” Wallace notes, “if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Wallace’s point is the same the Stoics tried to make over and over again:
The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of a 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.
So, choose wisely.
Key Lessons from “This Is Water”
1. Don’t Live by Default
2. The Real Value of Education: This Is Water
3. You Get to Decide What to Worship
Don’t Live by Default
Most of us operate at the default setting – namely, automatically. We leave our lives as if robots programmed to feel what we are told we should feel, or (to use Wallace’s parable) fish unaware of the surrounding waters.
The really important kind of freedom,” notes Wallace, “involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
The Real Value of Education: This Is Water
In the opinion of Wallace, “the real value of a real education” has nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with 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.’ ‘This is water.’ It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime.
You Get to Decide What to Worship
In the ultimate scheme of things, your life has no meaning.
But you can give it one, and that’s a most wonderful thing.
Worshipping money, power or physical beauty is pointless because you will never have enough of any of them.
So, simply put, worship something else.
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“This Is Water Quotes”
The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
We have summarized two quite famous commencement speeches before: J. K. Rowling’s Harvard commencement speech of 2008 and Admiral William H. McRaven’s 2014 “Make Your Bed” address at the University of Texas.
We feel that “This Is Water” is better than both: humbler and wiser, more theoretical but ultimately more practical as well, poetical, straight-to-the-point, and exceptionally profound.
Don’t read the book. In fact, don’t read the speech either.
Just hear it once.
Chances are you’ll end up hearing it over and over again.