Take a break from reading and watch this fantastic short film -- an adaptation of David Foster Wallace's major commencement speech delivered on May 21, 2005 at Kenyon College. Don't forget to come back, though, to learn why I keep forgetting about it.
As celebrities' commencement addresses become headlines, it's important to note that "This Is Water" is perhaps the greatest commencement speech of all time. In a genre dominated by easy maxims and encouraging one-liners speakers aim at graduates more likely to immediately forget a theme than to carry it with them into their futures, Wallace's endures. I could never forget this theme, so it's perhaps surprising that I don't lean on it more.
Wallace, an Amherst College graduate, does his alma mater proud in a speech that defends the purpose of a liberal arts education -- a popular topic these days in the age when the cost of a college education is scrutinized with greater fervency than its quality -- but no one has done it like Wallace at Kenyon. The speech warns that much of life is a routine filled with long lines, dead-eyed clerks, empty phrases and scores of minor annoyances that, in total, can either drive a person insane or simply turn him into sort of a dick. He argues that the ability to choose what to think and how to perceive, coupled with an allergy to the automatic responses to our daily annoyances, inform the sympathy and awareness that are the purpose of a quality education.
Wallace and I shared a professor of moral literature who first passed this speech to me to inspire a column I was to write, and eventually did, as a senior. (It lives still in Google.) I graduated in triumph -- and miraculously -- after a hellish semester that featured the worst grades I'd ever received, shaky job prospects and the sudden and unexpected death of my father at 46 years old. Since I was celebrating and reflecting on a difficult moment I should have learned from, I was eager to summarize, print out and hand in my college experience, and that semester packaged neatly with Wallace's lesson to keep it together. Having digested the speech's essence and having quoted it somewhat gracefully, like many do nowadays, I did just that.
The only thing that's capital "T" True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. This, I submit, is the freedom of real education, of how to be well-adjusted. You get to decide what has meaning and what doesn't. That is real freedom. That is being educated and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness.
Woah. I was conscious. I was changed -- sort of.
Now, I smile when the speech inevitably surfaces every commencement season. Because the key word in the above passage is "try" and because it takes continuous effort to reframe, contextualize and tolerate the destructive elements of routine, I only remember how good it is about once per year, like I remember how amazing those Reese's Easter Eggs are when April rolls around. My routine eventually overmatched Wallace's epiphany. Turns out, who he describes as an enlightened, fundamentally educated person needs to remind himself of this education millions of times in a week. I know this because I accused a cab driver of taking "the scenic route" last night, mostly because I liked the sound of the line and my "default reaction" is pretty dickish. Constantly trying is pretty damn trying.
I expected what fog remained around Wallace's message to gradually lift and further guide my life. In the space between now and then, though, it didn't. I was mixing metaphors. This is water not fog.
My point, I suppose, is simply that I'm glad the speech is now also a really amazing short film. I plan to watch it often. Kudos to TheGlossary.com, the company that possess the genius to produce the video, and in May to boot. It's on its way to greater Internet virility, which is a good thing. Tuck it away and watch it again and again after graduation, will you?