Among the usual crowd of soaring commencement speeches, David Foster Wallace’s address to the Kenyon College class of 2005 stands out in its grim insistence in examining reality as it is. It’s a somewhat dense read – as much of his work tends to be – but, ultimately, rewarding.
This address reminds me a lot of the NY Times article I posted a month or so ago about the secret to success (awareness). Foster Wallace similarly says that the key to living triumphantly is constantly being aware of the world outside the context of you. He draws on a cute allegory where two young fish are swimming down a river. An older fish – going in the opposite direction – nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” The two parties pass. Down the river, the young fish look at themselves and ask, “What the hell is water?”
So much of what we do and where we are has been determined for us. The point of Foster Wallace’s address is not to encourage grads to anarchy and to oppose convention, just because it seems like an imposition. He argues that the world does not – as we sometimes like to think – exist just to hinder us. It is just the state we’re in by default, just as fish exist in water. The point is not to escape the water, but to realize that it exists and to reconfigure your understanding of your life around this necessary constraint. Awareness is the stepping stone to living decisively!