In 2005, writer David Foster Wallace, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, presented the commencement address at Kenyon College. It set the bar for speakers for decades to come for how one might inspire new generations of graduates in creative and unconventional ways to not only engage the world in a meaningful way, but to face what he describes as the “petty”, “banal” existence of the day in and day out that is life with awareness and dignity and grace. His words are poignant and true and transformative.
If you have never heard this talk – or even if you have – it’s well worth your time to listen to this excellent excerpt in the accompanying video: This is Water
“The real value of a real education 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.'” *
Learning to overcome “the natural default setting,” as Wallace describes it, of “I am the center of the world and… my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities” * is the work of life. Learning how to see ourselves and beyond ourselves to others and life and the world around us in any number of grand and infinitesimally small ways is what is necessary for becoming a marriable person – or at least one that is reasonably pleasant to live with. It’s what is necessary to not get fired from your first job – or your fifith. It’s what is necessary to stay married, to have and keep friends, and to make life infinitely less frustrating and burdensome and exponentially more meaningful, happy, and connected to people and reality. Good mental health is nothing short of an unwavering dedication to reality. And, as too many of us know, a lack of it is attributable to our default setting.
This is the truth that sets us free, that separates those who stumble through life merely existing – yet unaware – and those who consciously choose to see and take The Road Less Traveled By. “The Capital T Truth is about life before death… This is water. This is water.” *
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Copyright 2013 ©. Christina Caine. All rights reserved.
Note: Passages in quotation marks followed by an asterick are by David Foster Wallace and are quoted from his commencement speech, “This is Water.”