From time to time, I like to share writings from others, especially something that’s timely or something I couldn’t say in the way another might say it. I appreciate when people write with their unmistakably authentic voice, and this writer does.
David Foster Wallace was wildly brilliant, and also suffered from depression. He is known for his rather mind-blowing journalistic pieces, short stories and novels. He was best known for his second novel, Infinite Jest (1996), a sprawling undertaking with almost 1100 pages and 330 footnotes. His life-long battle with depression ended in 2008 when he took his own life.
The following is an excerpt from his Kenyon Commencement Address, which he delivered on May 21, 2005 called “This Is Water.”
As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really 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. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.
This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always
shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.
And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: 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. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense. Let’s get concrete. The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.
(He goes on to give detail-driven examples of “day in, day out.” You can read them, of course, using the link to the full speech above.)
“The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.
Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.
Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort, and if you are like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat out won’t want to.
But most days, 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 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.
Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. 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.
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 grieve you. 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.
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’re unconscious. They are default settings.
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 the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has
much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. The really important kind of freedom 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.
I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital -T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.
The capital -T Truth is about life BEFORE death.
It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple 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. And it commences: now.
I wish you way more than luck.
Bless you all and may you have an aware and awake week.
It had been overcast until the last few hours when the sun re-appeared to add its touches to the evening. I had just finished my dinner in the room with sky-high windows. Taking the last bite, I turned toward the mountains for a fuller view, dessert if you will.
The landscape had been scrubbed clean from the last few days of downpours. Now, with a bright nod from the setting sun, the colors below and beyond the mountain ridge turned especially dramatic.
But something felt different than usual…
There was, yes, the standard backdrop of mountain midnight blue, deepening as evening approached. And tonight the blue was so strong, I closed my eyes to invite the depth of that blue into the center of me.
This is the blue I welcome when I most need reassurance and strength. Confidence. A strong foundation.
Some days the mountains offer deep sky blue or dark slate blue. Other days, Dodger blue, cornflower blue, steel blue. There’s plenty of blue in these mountains and these mountains share.
Across the valley, each blade of grass, every tousle-headed bush and tree was dressed for the evening in a favorite spring shade of green. And thanks to the generous sun, the green finery was awash in spectacular light.
As the sun slowly descended to the mountain ridge to my left, a colossal pile of brilliant white clouds moved in with unusual speed and accuracy, setting the stage for a possible grande finale, a last call for luminosity.
The process seemed faster and showier as if to say, pay attention! So I stood and waited. And watched.
There was a bright tension developing.
Cloud after cloud moved swiftly in front of the dropping sun, harnessing the light, holding it back, reigning it in, creating a light gate — one which began almost immediately to strain mightily at the seams.
There was, after all, unlimited light pushing from behind.
I wondered about capacity. Did the light gate have its limits? Would it burst? I noticed I was holding my breath.
Then, when it could hold no more, without announcement or fanfare, the light gate simply yawned. Or opened to speak, I’m not sure.
Through the gaping cloud mouth shot so much light! Over the valley it careened, worlds of light, galaxies of it — pouring, pouring — a breathtaking, awe-inspiring light slam!
The light did not spread evenly over the valley. Instead, the open gate sent one bold blast of blazing light through a single line of poplar trees, pouring so much light into them, they glowed with green fire.
The poplar leaves, light-drenched from every angle — top, bottom, sideways — became fluorescent green, radiant from within. I wondered how they felt being so loaded with light!
Taking a deep breath, I thought about humanity and how we might relate to the pouring of brilliant light. We humans can, after all, focus streams of love and light from our own eyes and heart out to the world. We can direct our light. Our love.
What if we did that — more? What if we waited to communicate until we were bursting with light? What if (then and only then) we opened our light gate to speak? What would change on the world stage? Or at home?
On other days, we’d be a poplar tree, drenched in light from another. We’d let the incoming light infuse us, inspire us, light our way.
I put my hand on my heart, running for my phone to see about a picture. But in the seconds required to reach for my other eyes, the cloud gate closed its mouth and that was that.
Light across the valley softened instantly. Tall trees relaxed. The soft greens below pulled a dark, cool sheet of midnight blue over and settled into the quiet of the evening.
Gradually, night came.
Witnessing the light shot, feeling the power of that much focused radiance has changed me. I’m not quite sure what happened to my understanding of life, or to my heart, or my soul, but I can tell you I (and those trees) will never be quite the same.
What I can say is that a deeper understanding of the power of light went into my bones. Light speak is more clear to my heart-being. My belief in our human connection to nature has never been more pronounced. Could there be a better partner for humanity than nature? I don’t think so.
That nature goes to the trouble of arranging a sky full of clouds and light to make a point, to show a truth — I’m not sure if I’ll ever understand the enormity of that kind of love.
A few days ago, I opened the relationship book I wrote before Eric died. The book is for women who have been married multiple times.
I had completed the book and given it to my editor. She was working on it. Not long after, in December of 2016, her husband’s health took a sudden and unexpected turn for the worse and he passed away.
Around the same time, Eric went to the hospital several times, and finally hospice. He died on March 25, 2017.
Needless to say, my editor and I abandoned all work on the book. We gave ourselves time.
Since then, I never once went to my computer to open it. I just couldn’t do it. I’m not sure why. In fact, I hadn’t opened the document since December 6, 2016.
A couple of days ago, I decided to take a gander at what I had written. Much to my dismay, I didn’t like the introduction or the first chapter. At least, it wasn’t what I would call a “hell, yes” or two enthusiastic thumbs up.
That was was slightly upsetting, mostly because of the work I imagined ahead.
I texted my editor and gave her the bad news. “I finally looked at the book I’ve written and so far, I don’t like it.”
She texted back, “Oh my. I don’t know what to say! Let me know how it goes and what you want to do. But take your time and be gentle with yourself.”
(What a good editor she is. What a wise and wonderful person she is. Such good advice to a panicked author.)
I had finished texting her while out on a mountain road walking my 12 lb wonder dog, Jackson. I tucked my phone back in my pocket, ready to continue walking.
Looking down at the ground, directly at my feet was a most striking feather. I am not a person who generally comes across feathers, even out here in the forest on a mountain road where there are plenty of birds — and therefore feathers.
It felt like a gift, a message, so I picked it up.
Out came the phone again. One source said feathers are symbols of freedom, inspiration and travel. That felt good and it helped me calm down about my book.
Everything’s gonna be OK, I thought to myself, and the book will surely need some editing and re-writing. That’s natural. After all, look what’s happened since I wrote it. What an amazing experience to realize how much I’ve changed since March 25.
Fast forward with me twelve hours.
That evening, there I am lying in bed reading a good book. I’m engrossed.
Something moved in the upper right corner of my eye, and it wasn’t a “floater.” (No, nothing to do with my aging eyeball!)
Something whisper quiet and the size of a bird was flying — in my bedroom!
It didn’t flap, so I knew it wasn’t a bird…
Oh, gosh, a bat! That’s what it is!
Goodness, another message about flying! Mother Nature has clearly gone out of her way to speak to me today.
I got out of bed and headed into the great room to (hopefully) call Mr. Batman to me. Thankfully, he followed me.
I closed the bedroom door so he wouldn’t go back in. It’s way easier for a trapped bat to fly in the great room where the ceilings reach the sky.
I employed several totally made up bat removal theories involving lights and darkness, windows with no screens, and wide-open doors to the deck.
He was having none of it.
Well alright, then. I can take a hint. I stopped trying.
Instead, I stood in awe of this beautiful flying creature as he silently circled the room in the same perfect pattern. Was he talking to me about something? Was he communicating? What am I supposed to understand here?
My thoughts wandered to Eric. Eric is a night guy. Maybe Eric was saying hello.
Mostly, though, I wondered how in the heck Eric The Bat had gotten into my house. (Where’s that secret, never-before-seen video when you need it most?)
We had had a bat in our house a long time ago and I tried to remember how Eric got him safely out of the house. (My cat Bella brought him in, holding him gently in her mouth. She wanted to show us her new play thing.)
But I was doing other things that day, and didn’t see the “get the bat out of the house” process. Eric handled it.
Since I didn’t know what Eric did, I thought I’d sleep on it. Maybe Eric would remind me while I dozed.
And no, I didn’t worry at all that a bat was flying around in my house. I figured he’d need sleep sooner or later, too, and then he’d fold up those beautiful wings and all would be quiet in my wonderful house.
(And honestly, Mr. Bat seemed quite sweet. He wasn’t scary or weird. I’ve never spent up-close and personal time with a bat and I rather enjoyed it.)
As a Native American animal symbol, the bat is a guide through the darkness. They say bat medicine releases us from our old self and opens the doors for something new and healing. In other systems, bats symbolize death and rebirth. Sometimes, they are known as the “Guardian of the Night.”
Well, chose any or all of that interpretation and it couldn’t be more perfect.
I felt touched that he had visited, reminding me that I’m being guided through the dark. Heaven knows I need a little help with the dark.
In the morning, I woke up with a picture of a ladder and a jar in my mind. I figured Eric couldn’t catch the flying bat, either, or guide him out of the house with a broom, as the internet suggests.
With the help of this mental picture, my best guess was that Eric waited until the bat landed on a low ceiling, got a ladder and put a jar over the bat. The bat fell into the jar and Eric carried him outside.
I did it! Worked like a charm!
Luckily, Mr. Bat was sleeping on a low ceiling where I could reach him — not the great room, thank goodness. Such a partnership!
At the right, you can see the rescue ladder and (barely, barely) the mason jar sitting on top.
Mr. Bat fit perfectly in the jar.
Holding this jar of wings, I thought, “Oh, honey, you’ve been in my house for far too long, let me get you out of here. But thank you for visiting me. And thanks for the message.”
(No, I didn’t make him endure a bat photography session.)
Taking him outside, I carefully poured him onto soft dirt in a tall planter. He wiggled to his feet and flew gracefully away, making a wide turn to the left.
Fast forward another few hours.
Walking my dear Jackson boy later that morning, I was thinking about re-reading my book and how much I’ve changed since Eric’s passing.
Just as I was wondering about that, asking myself exactly how I had changed, there was a ruckus above me — two squirrels leaping from treetop to treetop. They were up there, so high, flying from branch to branch without a net.
Oh, there’s my answer!
Thank you squirrels!
I’ve been leaping. More freely. From treetop to treetop.
I’m more direct in my communication. I’m more aware of my own BS and willing to give it up. The fear of moving forward without my long time friend, Eric, is slowly dissipating. I feel more confident. Freer.
Thank you, Mother Nature, for helping me in so many ways. I never feel alone or confused for long. When I have questions, you dispatch the perfect creatures to drop in, say hello and help me in some way. My heart is very happy about that.
Grazie mille, la mia Mamma! (Thanks a thousand times, my mamma!)