This is Water
Famous American novelist David Foster Wallace gave the 2005 commencement address to the graduating class of Kenyon College. He shunned the traditional graduation speech in favor of something a little more…spiritual.
In his speech, Wallace touched on a number of ideas that are very twelve-step in nature. He spoke about things like spirituality, perception, unconscious negative beliefs, self-centeredness, attitude, and how everyone, whether they like it or not, is connected.
The speech, which has come to be called “This is Water,” caused some waves when he made it. Not least of which was due to his use of some four-letter words. It was also anthologized in the Best American Non-Required Reading 2006 and later printed as its own book.
So, just what made Wallace’s speech so intriguing? Why did he choose to break the conventions of typical graduation speeches and deliver something a bit more personal? More importantly, what lessons can we take from his talk?
Ultimately, I don’t have the answers to these questions. What I do have is an opinion and a link to his speech. Find both below.
A 12-Step Philosophy
In his commencement address, Wallace urges those listening, and everyone who’s listened since, to break the chains of unconscious living. By this, he means our “natural default setting” of self-centeredness.
For the non-alcoholics in the crowd, this is good advice. For the alcoholics listening, though, this is absolutely vital to life, sobriety, and happiness. Remember, alcoholics are “extreme examples of self will run riot.” Our desire to do what we want, when we want to, is at the very heart of our disease.
Wallace touches upon this in a truly beautiful way. He says,
“Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence” (Wallace, 2005).
It’s nice to hear someone address this gut level self-centeredness outside of a meeting. It’s nice to be reminded, in the last place I’d expect to hear it, that self-centeredness is a poison we need to get rid of.
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Wallace then touches on how to break free of selfishness. His answer is, once again, rooted in a very twelve-step mode of thought. He drops profound knowledge in his signature style, mixing insight with deadpan humor. He says,
“But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues.” This is not a matter of virtue — it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self” (Wallace, 2005).
It’s all about the work! And for alcoholics like myself, this work takes the form of working the twelve-steps and getting in touch with a God of my understanding.
Speaking of God, Wallace touches upon spiritually later in his speech. Not only does he touch on spiritually, but he proclaims something which all recovering alcoholics know to be true – there are many types of Higher Powers, but only the spiritual ones offer us any sort of relief.
“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive” (Wallace, 2005).
That’s some deep stuff delivered simply enough for everyone to understand!
I could go on and on about this speech. I have before. I wrote my senior thesis on how David Foster Wallace adapted twelve-step principles and attempted to spread them to the world at large through his writing and essays. It was a noble pursuit, Mr. Wallace.
For now, though, I’ll leave you with a link to his speech. Give it a view. It’s tender, inspiring, and heartbreaking all at once. What more could someone ask for?