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Editor's Note: This is Water 

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In 2005, the author David Foster Wallace (best, and most infamously, known for his 1,079-page novel, Infinite Jest) gave the commencement speech to the graduating class at Kenyon College. The speech, is a classic of its type, hewing close to the well-worn conventions of the genre. Wallace opens with a parable. He goes on to state banal platitudes and justify them by saying that clichés are vitally important to navigating adult life—wait for it—because they are true. Wallace coyly avers that he is not there (at a podium, in a cap and gown himself) to give advice or lecture about virtues, but then slips in an ethical framework for the graduates to judge themselves against. He points out that life is about the choices we make. He explains what he believes the real value of a college education to be. And when Wallace ends his speech, he does so by informing the class that graduation is not an end, but a beginning—that their real education now commences.

Since Wallace killed himself last month, at the age of 46 (he had battled depression all his adult life), the Kenyon speech has been making the rounds, excerpted in obituaries and appreciations. The Wall Street Journal even devoted a full page to printing it in near-entirety. One of the reasons for the popularity of the speech, of course, is morbid curiosity. It makes passing reference to suicide, and we are hardwired to look there for the why. Why would an influential writer—prodigiously gifted, revered by his peers, staking out new territory in 21st-century American letters, the man whom Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times described as able to “do practically anything if he puts his mind to it”—want to kill himself? The speech doesn’t say.

The other reason the speech is being so widely referenced is this: It is probably the most truthful and inspiring and funny and useful talk ever given to a graduating class. Wallace manages to walk the windy high-wire between self-help bromides and what amounts to tough-love Buddhism (exhorting the students to minute-by-minute mindfulness) with the finesse of Philippe Petit between the Twin Towers. Call it nitty-gritty positivity, a call to non-self-centered self-consciousness in a grim world still holding the possibility of grace. I have been reading it almost daily since Wallace’s death. It exhibits the guts and sincerity of self-examination that were the hallmarks of his work. While we don’t have the space the run the Kenyon speech in its entirety, I’d like to share the following excerpts. The entire text is widely available on the Internet.

Excerpts from David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College:

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?”


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 “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. 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.


If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important—if you want to operate on your default-setting—then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars—compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.


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.”
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