Detailed Analysis of “This is Water” (DFW’s Epic Commencement Speech)


[Note: This is the Third of a series of posts on Human Nature, Philosophy, Psychological/Spiritual Well-Being. First and Second Posts can be found HERE and HERE (you can read them in any order). The below post discusses David Foster Wallace‘s epic commencement speech delivered in 2005, while heavily referencing it. Thus, reading the speech before reading the analysis is highly recommended, although not strictly necessary. A previous post establishing contextual context of the Speech can be found HERE. The speech itself can be found HERE. This analysis is peppered with verbatim extracts of the Speech, indented appropriately, which can be glossed over for those who have read the speech already.]

[Fair Warning – Lengthy Analysis! There’s some repetitiveness, but that’s a natural product of splitting the speech into various inter-related and overlapping categories of analysis with my personal thoughts on the same.]

Banalities/Platitudes:

We too often dismiss aphorisms, adages and platitudes, thinking that they are naive, gross over-simplifications. While that might be true, there is remarkable beauty and poetry in the reductive expressiveness and self-evident truth of several of these timeless adages. This tendency to reject simplistic narratives is even more pronounced in the current crop of young people (myself included), who have been bred into a world of consumerism,  self-aggrandizement, short attention-spans and hyper-narcissism. The youth have fallen prey to doses of heavy cynicism and general weariness in this post-modern world – dominated by the worship of self, of material worth and of narcissistic and hedonistic pursuits. But while they have been sidelined, they have never been more relevant!

DFW warns against writing off all platitudes, and emphasizes on the importance of rejecting excessive cynicism in the same. This point, is in essence, the starting point, and perhaps even the central crux of DFW’s rhetoric thesis. After delivering a moving piece of oratory, he sublimely ties right back into this same point towards the very end of his speech, underscoring the ubiquitous validity of the simplest yet profoundest of platitudes, while suggesting that as hard as we try, we simply cannot escape axiomatic truths expressed concisely in these reductive forms.

“the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.”

Solipsism of Sensation & Loneliness of Human Condition:

One of the key-conclusions of a section of Part One – included the fact that the journey of life and the human condition is characterized at the most fundamental level by an intrinsic and ingrained sense of loneliness – from birth to death – because human perception of pleasure & pain, of joy & grief, of every conceivable emotion and every possible state of mind – is entirely solipsistic (i.e. entirely contained within one’s own mind).

The intense pain you feel is trapped inside the confines of your own head – it cannot be described, it cannot be put into words – nobody can understand the sharpness, the obliqueness, the dullness, the true intensity and magnitude, etc – thus, the emotional pain you go through is uniquely your own. While thinking about the universality of such experiences (i.e. the fact that everyone from your loved ones to Amitabh Bachchan to Barack Obama might have gone through or continue to face anguish in their lives) might provide some solace – the fact remains that pain is such an internal journey, that you have to make that journey alone. Thus, when facing emotional anguish, especially at fundamental cross-roads in life, you were, are and always will be alone. The same goes with happiness or joy – the exact nature, scope and magnitude of joy/elation you feel – cannot be measured or articulated in words – and hence is trapped within the confines of your own mind. In fact, in every conceivable state of mind and experiencing every possible emotion, a person is and always will be alone (Unless of course, we develop Telepathy as a sixth sense). The key is to make peace with it, and to not dwell in it too much. One way to do this is by being keenly attuned to sensory inputs around you – including and especially other people’s feelings and actions.

“Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master. This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth … how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”

Education, Humility and Critical Awareness:

On education, DFW correctly points out that what passes off for “education” is a very superficial bastardization of the true intent and optimal objective of a real education. Real/True education involves awareness, discipline and attentiveness, and has much less to do with factual knowledge or rote learning. DFW links a real education with the reduction of arrogance and the development of humility in oneself, through becoming critically aware of one’s limitations, and the limitations of one’s own thoughts and perception, while being conscious of ways in which we construct meaning from experience.

“Religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s non-believer: blind certainty, a closed-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total, that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.”

“Teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean – teaching me to be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percetange of stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.”

“The really significant education in thinking that we are supposed to get in a place like this, isn’t really about our capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about, or what to pay attention to.”

“It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized 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 cliché of 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 to pay attention to, and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

On a related point on education (with special emphasis), DFW warns against the over-intellectualizing and rationalizing capacity of the human mind, which comes about naturally as a result of an advanced education and intellectual conditioning. DFW questions the link between academic and intellectual excellence on one hand, and the ability to rebel against ingrained patterns of self-centered perception and sensation. He asserts that intellectual sophistication can very well leave a person all the more trapped in the solipsistic prison of thoughts, sense and perception in one’s own mind – focusing more on the abstract, intellectual rambling monologue inside, rather than being conscious enough to pay careful attention to the outside world and to others around you.

“Given the triumphant academic setting here, an obvious question is how much of this work of adjusting our default setting involves actual knowledge or intellect. This question gets very tricky. Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education–least in my own case–is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize 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.”

Natural Default Setting & Empathy:

Empathy is an inherently alien concept to the human mind. Empathy is intrinsically difficult for humans to practice and requires us to actively strive against our inherent solipsism of sensation – the fact that our own pain/pleasure is so viscerally and urgently evident to us, while the pain/pleasure of others somehow needs to be communicated to us externally – in ways that severely dilute its urgency or potency. Part of the challenge of human existence, therefore, is to transcend the internal prison of perception where the Self is at the center of all sensation, and to purposefully strive to actively sense & respond to the needs of others. (On a lighter vein, once again, Telepathy as a sixth sense should go a long way to further Empathy!)

“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. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real. Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all 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. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.”

Routine, Monotony, Zen Imperturbability, & Intentional Choice:

Real life (at least large stretches of everyday life for common folks) is seldom like literature – rarely having the charm, eloquence, energy and adventure of good literature. Adult existence is in fact deeply entrenched in and characterized by Routine, Structure and Responsibilities – and all the monotony that comes along with it. The need for instant gratification is well embedded as a primal part of the human psyche, and even more prominent in the younger generation (again myself included). And should this impatience for results, and the lust for instant glory, find a dominating voice inside our heads, conducting our day-to-day routines would become nigh impossible, filled with a sense of restless angst, bitter disappointments, and indeed cynical detachment. Furthermore, perceiving and sensing negatively comes naturally and spontaneously to the human mind, while positive perception requires constant inputs of conscious, intentional choice.

DFW stresses the absolute imperative in reining/taming this discordant sense of entitlement, expectation and gratification, in favor of a Zen outlook that suits the long marathon run of life’s routines. He withholds negative judgement on these ingrained primal traits, but asserts it’s instead simply a matter of intentionally choosing to be emancipated from the unconscious natural default of self-centered thought-processes.

“There happen to be whole, large parts of adult life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine, and petty frustration … Everyone here has done this [read: monotonous routine], of course. But it hasn’t yet been part of you graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year. But it will be. And many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides. But that is not the point. The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way.”

“Thinking this way [read: negatively] tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities … please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are supposed to think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it. Because it’s hard. It takes will and effort.”

“Most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently … It just depends what you what 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. This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.”

Unconscious Meaning / Mode of Worship:

Pointing out that a person derives meaning out of empirical observation and actual life experiences, DFW questions the basis of such derived meaning, while hinting at the importance of underlying unconscious thought-processes, starting-assumptions and internal orientation that gradually builds up into construction of advanced derived meaning.

“Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy’s interpretation is true and the other guy’s is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person’s most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice.”

DFW asserts that in most cases, we allow our minds to unconsciously derive meaning on our behalf, gradually becoming more and more selective and choosy about what we aspire to or what excites us (and conversely what we despise & what depresses us). While many non-religious people claim to be Atheists, DFW dispels any such notions of “Atheism” as a reality in the day-to-day of adult existence, pointing out that everybody (including so called Atheists) worships some prized goal or some aggrandized fantasy involving their own internal-self-deity in some sense.He hints that everybody subjugates themselves to something, and that the human mind has a propensity to submit to its fickle whims and fancies, and its inflated sense of self-importance. And that the most insidious aspect of this disposition is not that it is necessarily evil or sinful, but that it happens unconsciously and gradually, without involvement of conscious thought or intent or action. And that among the central challenges of human existence is to be acutely aware of when and how one is selectively constructing meaning (or lack thereof).

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

Awareness & Consciousness:

In summation, DFW concludes that the nature and purpose of an ideal education has got very little to do with facts and blind knowledge, and lesser to do with the intellectualizing/rationalizing capacities inherent to the human mind – and in fact much more to do with simple awareness, discipline and the constant striving for attentive consciousness. This struggle, he believes is the greatest challenge for every human being, and is in fact the work of a lifetime – sustaining the rebellion against our own solipsism, self-centered perception and unconscious impulses, over the period of a human lifetime.

“That [read: all the above points] is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational the way a commencement speech is supposed to sound. What it is, as far as I can see, is the capital-T Truth, with a whole lot of rhetorical niceties stripped away. You are, of course, free to think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t just dismiss it as just some finger-wagging Dr Laura sermon. None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: “This is water.”, “This is water.”

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now. I wish you way more than luck.”

As mentioned before, the very last statements beautifully comes around a full circle to the very beginning of the speech, unequivocally reaffirming the starting and central premise – namely – the emphatic veracity of poetically reductive expressions of banalities and platitudes – concisely encapsulating the inescapable, inevitable nature of certain axiomatic truths that permeate all our lives, without us even realizing it.

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