My response to one of the best graduation speeches ever, if I may say so. Excellent speech, Mr. Wallace.
(To know what exactly I’m talking about, you might want to read David Foster Wallace’s commencement address for Kenyon College here.)
School and education. Two words that can elicit the most passionate and distinct responses. To me, it’s both a hellhole of grades, sleep deprivation and homework, and a place I can talk to my friends and maybe learn a thing or two. So when I was first assigned to read this graduation speech, I complained, I procrastinated, and I may have hit a pillow several times. I didn’t particularly want to hear how good school was, why I should continue my education, etc. But after reading Wallace’s speech, I think I definitely could have spared those pillows a beating.
Of the whole speech, three main points particularly stood out to me.
Challenge Your Own Ideals
The “didactic little story” about the two men in Alaska, one religion and the other not, quite effectively summarizes how most conversations between any two people with opposing viewpoints end up. Each man believes that his ideals are correct, and entirely dismisses the arguments of the others. Just look at politics. The Democrats and Republicans hate each other, but each does have their good points. But no, because they’re officially a “Democrat” or a “Republican”, they can never share the same ideas or agree on anything. All in the sake of a belief. As Wallace says, they have the same problem: “blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.” So yes, the point is that I’m not always right, you’re not always right, but together we may get somewhere closer to ‘right’, wherever that is.
Everything doesn’t suck and…Hey look! There’re more people in the world than just me!
Like any normal human being, I don’t consciously think about myself being the greatest human alive, but like any normal human being, I do think of the world in terms of people, places, and things around me. As Wallace puts it, there has been no experience that I’ve had where I “was not the absolute center of,” and those experiences and thoughts have been more relevant, more significant to me than anyone else’s. Today, I was pissed at my brother for eating my cookies, and I may or may not have thrown a fit and refused to do anything for the past three hours until I realized I had a blog due in an hour. They obviously were my cookies, that I made and that I was going to eat after my first week of school.
So what can we do to solve this issue? Think about how others are feeling in this situation, or change how you’re feeling about it, Wallace says. Pretend that my brother was happy and not just trying to annoy me, or that I should feel honored that he stole my cookie because that meant he liked them? Yes, that’s actually quite difficult to think, because it requires a matter of my freeing myself from my self-centered view of life, but that’s exactly “how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out,” unless you want to live your life angry about it. As hard as it will be, it’s possible to choose what you want to think about, how you think about it, and whether to see other options.
This statement confused me at first. I’m an atheist, but this passage made me quite aware that I am, in fact, a worshipper—to my image, to my reputation and even to my grades. And I can promise that I’m not the only one stuck in this religion of money and material value, glory and intellect. Because that would explain why deep down inside, most people aren’t happy. They think that they could always be a little skinnier, use some more money, gain some more fame. It probably even explains why Kim Kardashian never leaves my news feed, because she’s always marrying and divorcing. If I can assume a bit here, I would say she wasn’t born doing not-so-smart things. But somewhere along her path to fame, she became caught up in the chains of society, the chains of money, fame and power, and became a worshipper—never having enough, always wanting more. “They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing,” and this is certainly the most insidious form of worship, because you aren’t even aware of how much happiness and credit you’re robbing yourself of.
Yes, essentially, Wallace is just stating the obvious, but these are some words that needed to stated and restated over and over again. After all, Wallace himself agrees that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.