Tag Archives: David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace on controlling how you see reality

Today a friend sent me the transcript of this commencement speech delivered by David Foster Wallace. It’s the first thing I’ve ever read by him, and I am in love. I just stared off into space for a good 15 minutes and imagined meeting him in all the places he mentions in his speech. I’ve never been in love with a dead person before, and I think it will be good for me. I think it may be better to be in love with a brilliant dead person than a stupid living one, or at least less of a waste of time.

Here’s an excerpt from his speech, but read the whole thing for fun anecdotes about suburban grocery store terrorists:

Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education–least in my own case–is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me.

As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotised by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). 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. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master”.

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.

It’s an interesting take, sort of I Ching-ish. I think it would be much easier to dissociate than to see reality differently, but I’ll give it a try, David Foster Wallace. For you.