I recently read a speech that David Foster Wallace delivered to the 2005 graduates of Kenyon College. He didn’t seem like he wanted to have a generic speech about all the things these graduates had done to get to this place or all the wonderful things they now get to encounter. Instead, he talked about all the unpleasant things they now had to face in ‘adult life’. Wallace talked about how unexciting life can be and how repetitive it probably will be. How adults seem to get in these routines that could last weeks or even a lifetime. He talks about these crappy things in life for a while, long enough to sound quite depressing. But, before he began describing how boring being an adult can be, he talked about being self-centered.
When people continually talk about themselves, most others become repulsed. We thinks “jeez, get off your high-horse” or “talk about something else for once”. People are so critical of others being too self-centered, that we don’t even realize how self-absorbed we are. And all of us are; in our heads (usually unconsciously) we come first. People, and I, like to think that we are mostly thoughtful, caring, and we try to put others ahead of us. However, that’s not the case, we are like Wallace says, hard-wired to think about ourselves first. Its such a default setting that we don’t even think twice about it. Wallace points out that everything we do and encounter is through us, it was your experience, even if someone tells us how they feel, we still process it through our minds. So because it is hard for us to think of others, how are we supposed to do anything but think of ourselves first, why should we? Well, Wallace points out, it is a conscious act everyday to think of others, to be aware. To think about someone possibly being in a bigger rush than you, or someone may have it harder than you, or all these other adults stuck in the same place, could be just as annoyed and upset as you. We have to learn to not put ourselves first, to remember day in and day out, that no matter how impossible it may seem, we are in fact not the center of the universe. And it wont come naturally, it’s hard to think of others, it takes work and effort.
That idea of learning how to think of others and adjusting is what Wallace calls the freedom of a real education. Being able to consciously decide what matters to you and what doesn’t. Because, as Wallace says, there is no real atheism. Everyone worships something, religious or not. We all have something that holds us, whether that be money, power, or anything really. And the truth is, no is really going to discourage you, its a default setting. Most people want that, to be able to worship what we want, and do what we want. Some call that freedom, but Wallace points out a freedom most don’t talk about. The ability to be attentive and thoughtful, the choice to be aware. That ideal I truly believe in, to try hard and not be self-centered, to focus on others. Something that may seem so easy, but is actually a really hard thing to do. Its so simple, and always there, we rarely think about it. I think that’s what Wallace is saying in his speech, to stop the routine we all get stuck in. We should try and think of others, and learning that skill is education.
His speech is here: http://web.ics.purdue.edu/~drkelly/DFWKenyonAddress2005.pdf