I've only read a smattering of David Foster Wallace's short stories and essays, but he is one of my husband's favorite authors. So when he killed himself a few weeks ago, we took notice.
In the days after his death, I was moved to read this piece, adapted from a 2006 commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College. In it, Foster Wallace ruminated on the curse of self-centeredness, of seeing everything through the lens of me, me, me. Here is a section of the speech:
As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about "teaching you how to think" is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: "Learning how to think" really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.
There is a beautiful section of the speech in which Foster Wallace transforms a soul-draining shopping experience at the grocery store into a rare opportunity for human empathy and understanding. He does this simply by stepping outside of himself, and giving people the benefit of the doubt. Just as we would want people to do for us.
You should read the whole thing if you have the time. I don't think you'll regret it.
I've been thinking a lot about this speech in the last few weeks. Returning to it often. Trying to put it into practice. One small example : my family was at Donato's the other evening, and I was impatient because the cashier was taking too long to wait on me. Me, me, me. But I switched off that petty, inner outrage, and saw myself for what I was : one person in a crowded roomful of fellow people, all of whom were either working hard, or wanting pizza, too. It was so easy. All it took was awareness, and the tiniest adjustment in attitude. And I felt the better for it.
Of course, it isn't always so easy. It wasn't for Foster Wallace. He could not, at some point, escape the huge, cold clutch of his own mind. But I have no doubt that he tried. That he believed in these words. And that he wanted those kids at Kenyon to try, too.
I'll leave you with a few more of his words from that day:
The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race" -- the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.
[Photo courtesy of Keith Bedford/Getty Images]