Every now and then I read something that holds me captive long after I have clicked out of the site or laid the book or magazine down. Paragraphs will come back to me in fragments for days after – during savasana on my yoga mat, as I’m standing in a line at the post office, while I am driving. I know this is a form of projection – a need, a thought, a wish or an emotion that I am not facing, is agitating from my subconscious until I allow it to realise through someone else’s words. Like a film on a screen. Making it more real perhaps, or believable if it’s coming from the outside.
Regardless of the why, when this happens I know I need to take heed of the content. Because something I have been trying to resolve is bubbling through. In small, balloon deflating whisps of air until the take-away settles in and becomes part of my emotional landscape. Invariably, it will teach me something. Kick my ass if I have made a mistake. Or remind me of my values if I have become careless.
I saw this piece in The Guardian online. And it has stayed with me all week. I’ve excerpted some of it below, but please, do yourself a favour and read a longer extract from the speech here. It’s worth every second of your time.
David Foster Wallace, who died last year, was one of the most brilliant American writers of his generation. In this speech, he reflects on the difficulties of daily life and ‘making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head’. He gave the speech in 2005, but his words are very relevant to much of what has been happening in our world, in the aftermath of the murders in Paris and Nigeria. And the old wounds that have opened, and old questions that are being re-posed.
“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?”
His point: life is water – it is happening around us all the time, we are immersed: and often we don’t notice until someone points it out to us:
“The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”
A race we willingly run because, Foster Wallace believes, we all worship something:
“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is 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 an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”
He clarifies our most common defaults:
“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 own 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. On one level, we all know this stuff already – it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
Choosing not to go with a default offers us an opportunity to see the world with clearer eyes:
“But there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. 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. That is real freedom.
“The capital-T Truth is about life before death. ……. It is about simple awareness – awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”
Foster Wallace took his life. He was 46 when he died. He didn’t make it. A reminder to rethink the stories we tell ourselves, to breathe when the water feels too deep.
(Note: This is adapted from the commencement speech the author gave to a graduating class at Kenyon College, Ohio. The Wall Street Journal published the full transcript here.)