This is Water: What David Foster Wallace wanted us to think about

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?”

Ten years ago this weekend, author and philosopher David Foster Wallace delivered what is widely held to be the gold standard for commencement speeches when he addressed the 2005 graduating class of my alma mater, Kenyon College. In the speech, titled “This is Water,” he turned the traditional “teaching you how to think” narrative of a liberal arts education on its head, explaining to graduates that the true benefit of education in thought is not that it will get you a good job, or even that it will make you good at the job you eventually do get, but rather that consciously choosing what to think about will make the day-to-day slog that is daily life somewhat more bearable.

Here’s the audio:

Wallace starts with a simple premise: Every experience that he, I and everyone else has ever had has been interpreted as if we were the center of the universe. We are the stars in our own movies. This being the case, it’s all too easy to interpret our daily drudgeries, annoyances and boredoms as personal insults.

Viewed through this lens, the lady in the checkout line talking on her cellphone, the guy who cuts you off in his SUV on the highway and the clerk at the DMV who can’t quite get your driver’s license renewed correctly are all Very Bad People. Left unchecked, this interpretation of the world can and will drive us crazy. As Wallace said, in our default states of mind:

I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply, personally unfair this is.

The alternative to all of this is to make some semblance of a conscious choice about how to perceive these unconsciously personal sleights brought on by nature of living in a society with other people. If you are able to keep in the back of your mind the idea that maybe, just maybe, you’re not the star of your own movie, and are instead sometimes an extra in someone else’s movie, you can shift your perspective to the point at which those daily annoyances don’t seem so bad after all:

…if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.

Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and who and what is really important, you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have 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 lit the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Wallace’s proposition offers an effective way to endure the checkout line and other common inconveniences, but when faced with situations that are actually bad, it feels a bit like self-delusion. While it may put you in a better mental state if you tell yourself that the guy who cut you off on the highway could be rushing his kid to the hospital, which would mean, in Wallace’s words, “he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way,” what if they aren’t? What if that guy who cuts you off on the highway really is just being a jerk? If you force yourself to believe otherwise, can that still be considered a genuine or appropriate interpretation and response?

David Foster Wallace, via Creative Commons

David Foster Wallace, via Creative Commons

Wallace has almost certainly thought of this, and I don’t think he’d expect us to will ourselves into a fantasy world in which there are no bad people who do bad things, however insignificant or mundane. Instead, I think Wallace has intentionally left a hole in his argument that he expected the careful listener, and later reader, to find.

(This is especially likely given that Kenyon’s political theory and philosophy departments emphasize esoteric readings of texts. As a Kenyon political science grad, I can’t help but wonder if Wallace, in intentionally leaving pieces of his argument unstated, was giving a nod to Kenyon’s philosophic tradition.)

Rather than brainwashing ourselves into thinking that everything is always fine, Wallace wants us to consider the low points in life and realize that, even if we are confronted with truly negative experiences, we still have a choice; it’s just a different kind of choosing.

This different kind of choosing is made clearer when Wallace goes on to his next examples of the difficulties life throws at you — cases that are far heavier than long lines at the grocery store or having to hit the brakes on the highway:

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. 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 — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — 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 plant you.

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 are unconscious. They are default settings.

The kind of choosing how to think that Wallace proposed as a solution to getting through your daily routine doesn’t work the same way when applied to the existential challenges posed by personal identities and, by extension, failures. Everyone worships, and as a consequence everyone fails. There is no way to contextualize this failure; you can’t simply explain it away or delude yourself into thinking that everything is, in fact, fine. Life is full of banality and cringeworthy repetition, but it is also full of soul-threatening personal incapacities. How do you deal with those?

Having anticipated this objection, Wallace expects his listeners to realize that there are more kinds of thinking than our unconscious default settings and our conscious self-delusions. What he didn’t mention, but what he wanted us to understand, is that the real way to get past not just only life’s annoyances, but also it’s mind-bending despairs, is to consciously choose to be honest with oneself — really, deeply honest — about the fact that no one is special. No one is the star or an extra in anyone’s movie; there is no movie. The universe operates with no one in mind. This being the case, your best hope is to catch yourself wanting things to be different, and to consciously remind yourself that it isn’t.

This doesn’t mean one needs to fall into a nihilistic state of amoral, unfeeling nothingness. Rather, it allows one the freedom to have what Neitzsche called the “golden laughter” — the irony necessary to cope with the fact that the deck is randomly shuffled, you’re going to die and that’s OK. You don’t have to pretend that everything bad about life doesn’t exist. You can and should acknowledge it, face it and, eventually, move past it. On to the next grocery run, the next professional failure, the next loss of a loved one.

Wallace wants us catch ourselves the moment we feel that twinge of seeping frustration — the physical sensation that the universe is out to get us — and make the conscious decision to accept it for what it is: As Wallace puts it, “life BEFORE death.”

This acknowledgement is both incredibly simple and incredibly difficult, entailing nothing more than “attention and awareness and discipline.” However, it brings with it the most important kind of freedom: “being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty little unsexy ways every day.”

Wallace wanted his listeners to understand that if we can, moment by moment, step back and re-approach life with reflective honesty and irony, we will find that the our own individual meaninglessness allows us the freedom to lead fundamentally and personally meaningful lives.

It starts by remembering that this is water. This is water.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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15 Responses to “This is Water: What David Foster Wallace wanted us to think about”

  1. SabrinaDRichardson says:

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  2. The_Fixer says:

    Really nice, thought-provoking read, Jon.

    I’ve adopted a similar attitude, I think, as a result of getting older. You get a little more patient anyway, perhaps that patience gives you more time to consider what might be going on in other people’s lives.

    I once had a much older co-worker, when I was in my mid-20s, who would occasionally say the most outrageous and sometimes socially daring things. Never mean-spirited, though.

    I once expressed delight with something she had said, and her reply was “with age, comes license.” She was right, of course. I also learned from her that although age does bring one license to say or do something that is unexpected, bold or even negative, it’s up to use to use that license wisely.

    It’s discretion and remembering that other people can have license, too.

  3. Hue-Man says:

    In my grocery store parking lot, today, I was about to unlock my car door when the owner of the car parked next to mine walked up. As it happens, our cars were parked so that the driver’s side doors were within hitting distance of each other. Instead of exercising my “first arrived, first served” rights, I signaled for her to get in her car so she could get on her way.

    The concession cost me nothing because a 30 second delay did not change the shape of my day. My guess is that her day might have improved by a vanishingly small amount – in other words, Gross National Happiness of the world probably increased.

    I’m not telling this trivial story to claim my position as World Humanitarian but to suggest that a shift of focus from our starring roles can improve the lives of others with no sacrifice on our part.

  4. Indigo says:

    The degree amounts to a work permit. Not exactly a union card, but solid evidence that you stuck with it on something. A rare talent in the best of times.

  5. dave3137 says:

    Thank you, Jon. His speech was inspiring, and needed today even more than in 2005. Your reflections on it, I have no doubt, would make him proud. Thanks again for reminding us to Be. Here. Now.

  6. 2patricius2 says:

    Thanks for sharing.

  7. Houndentenor says:

    Maybe instead of empty platitudes, politicians might offer college graduates something substantial like lowering the interest rates on student loans. Perhaps governors might restore funding to state universities. Perhaps billionaires giving speeches might invest their money in the US instead of hiding it in offshore accounts.

  8. emjayay says:

    Answer to life: be sure you have enough frozen stuff in the fridge.

  9. cambridgemac says:

    Thank you. This is wonderful.

  10. 2karmanot says:

    True that……I’ve found my PhD comes in handy when figuring how to fill out government forms.

  11. nicho says:

    No, but not having a degree guarantees no job or a shit job — unless you have some special talent you can market.

  12. 2karmanot says:

    Brilliant!

  13. I’ve believed something like this for a long time – not even sure how I came to it, but I tell people the most important thing to realize is that your life is defined not by what happens to you but rather by how you react to it. That to me is a huge part of what it means to be truly free.

    Very neat to hear someone else express that philosophy so eloquently.

  14. liquidassets says:

    Some of the advice in here seems potentially helpful, but because Wallace himself committed suicide, we are left wondering whether the overall general philosophy was inadequate for his soul in particular, whether it was indeed something beneficial that he failed to fully integrate, or whether it was just clever, but ultimately irrelevant.

  15. Indigo says:

    Um . . . are we still graduating students who think that their college degree guarantees a Good Job? That shibboleth was worn out before I retired from teaching College Humanities courses almost 20 years ago.

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