Every few months I read David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech, “This is Water.” In trying to select a passage to put here, I highlighted about 70% of the speech, which is my way of telling you to read it. This time around – it varies with each read – the following passage stood out:
If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and 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 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.
After twenty nine years on this earth, I have reached the cautious conclusion that living is a long series of attempts to understand, in the same pre-reflexive way you reach for your phone before you’re fully awake or know left from right, the truisms all around us.
Most of us know to think for ourselves, listen to our hearts, confront mortality, pay attention, love others (and ourselves), take risks, make hard decisions, be grateful, laugh, and yet, we are usually unable to.
This suggests that life is not an information problem (Remember? There is nothing new under the sun). Life is an attention and decision problem; being conscious enough to notice the parade of decisions and courageous enough to take them.
David makes a similar point twice in the speech:
The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance…
….On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
I highly recommend it.