I acquired this book out of random kindness. A father of a third grader I taught three years ago gave my assistant and I this book after our parent teacher conference with his daughter. It was simply a very thoughtful move, but what this parent didn’t know was how relevant and meaningful it was for my life at the time.
Since that moment, three years ago, I have pulled out this book, This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered On a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, each year to reread this food for thought that touches me in a way that reminds me of why we are all here–in which the author shares or, rather, unveils with casual humor the most important lessons he learned about life.
This book was a commencement “speech” or parable that David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005. You can most likely devour Wallace’s words in about 20 minutes. The author made it very clear he had no intention to be preachy like other college campus speakers, but reveals in his address the most basic and important decisions we will face every day in the real world–HOW we are to think about the world.
Here are some ideas that struck me:
Everyone thinks the meaning of a liberal arts education is about teaching you how to think, when in reality it should also be about critical awareness, i.e. how you think, to what you pay attention, how you go about constructing meaning from experience. Life is about the day in and the day out, and the conscious decision about how to think to “survive.” Only YOU get to see how you’re going to see the world. YOU get to decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. The trick, as he says, is keeping the truth up front in our daily consciousness.
He goes on to bring up other pieces of interest to me, like how everyone worships something, the choice we have is what. We are hard wired to be self-centered because we are the only ones who are having the immediate experience and can know what is going on in our own brains. Also, he shares how to lead a compassionate life, which is really a matter of one’s thinking.
This book brings up some thoughtful questions: How do we keep from going through adult life unconsciously, comfortably entrenched in habit? How do we remove ourselves from the foreground of our thoughts and achieve compassion?
Later, after reading David Foster Wallace’s incredibly witty account with practical philosophy, I was saddened to learn he hung himself in 2008 at the age of 46. He had suffered from depression and was on medication for almost 20 years. I am beyond intrigued with this author/professor. Not only is he considered “one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years,” by a Los Angeles Times book editor, but he is known for his 1996 novel Infinite Jest, which Time magazine included as the top 100 English-language novels from 1923 to the present. Wallace graduate from Amherst College and earned an MFA in creative writing from University of Arizona. He was married and the product of well educated parents who were both professors. In September 2012, five years after his death, a biography about David Foster Wallace called Every Love Story is a Ghost Story by D. T. Max will be published. I will be clamoring for this book.