Empathy and the Mystical Oneness of All Things Deep Down

It is that time of year where schools feature ceremonies where older and wiser people come to talk to the graduating students to tell them about life. Some are boring, many are good, but few are great. One great address came from the late author David Foster Wallace.

Wallace’s Commencement Address

On May 21, 2005 on a sunny warm day, Wallace gave the commencement address at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Some students had worked to help bring him to the school.  But Wallace had been reluctant for several months about whether to accept the offer to speak.

Wallace had been anxious about speaking in front of a large crowd, referring to it as “the big scary ceremony.” He was still nervous on the day of his speech, but he ultimately gave one of the most memorable commencement addresses ever.

“This is Water”

Not surprisingly, in his address, Wallace avoided inspirational platitudes.  Instead, he used the opportunity to try to get down to the core of living life as an educated person. At the same time, he admitted he had no “Truths,” but his speech was inspiring nevertheless.

The speech has been called the “This is Water” address because Wallace begins with a story about two young fish who encounter an old fish who asks, “How’s the water?” One of the young fish asks the other, “What the hell is water?”

Wallace then used the story to explore how humans naturally are self-centered creatures.  He then explained how we need to learn to see obvious things that are around us. For example,

“[I]f you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider.

“If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

“Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.”

Of course, Wallace is much better at explaining it than I am. So, the whole speech is worth reading or listening to below.

In retrospect, some of the speech is haunting, because Wallace at one point talked about suicide in the speech.  He would kill himself a little more than three years later on September 12, 2008.  He was 46.

Wallace was surprised when his words spread around the Internet, as he had not even given Kenyon a copy of his speech. But the speech was transcribed from recordings at least twice (by a Kenyon student and a student from a neighboring college) and sent around the Internet. The speech was eventually published as This is Water. The audio is also available. Check it out.

The Miracle of Empathy

One thing I take from the speech is that Wallace is talking about learning empathy, although he does not use that term. It is true that education helps us perceive how others view the world and improves our ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Despite Wallace’s own tragic end only about three years later in September 2008, his speech is inspiring and uplifting.

Of course, we learn empathy from a number of sources, including novels, memoirs, movies, and music. When you watch a great movie, think about whether it is enlightening you about empathy, and I suspect that you will find that many great films like Casablanca (1942) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) do just that.

Lucinda Williams: “When I Look at the World”

You may also think of songs that provide similar lessons in much shorter doses. Pretty much any blues song fits in this category. More recently, singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams touched on a similar theme in “When I Look at the World.”

Williams’s song that starts out with the singer taking a view of the world from her own perspective, as Wallace discusses. Then, she changes her perspective when she looks at the world.

Below, Williams performs “When I Look at the World” from her excellent album Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone (2014) at KXT Live Sessions.

Next time you think about yourself, take a look at the world and think about what lessons you can take from the writers, books, friends, movies, and music that surrounds you. “I look at the world / And it’s a different story each time I look at the world.”

What do you think of David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water” commencement address? Leave your two cents in the comments. Fish photo via pubic domain at pdpics.

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