Analysis of “This is Water” a Commencement Speech at Kenyon College by David Foster Wallace

This is water is a speech given by David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College. The book form was introduced subsequently in 2009. By June 2005 a transcript of the speech was in circulation online. It is the only public speech given by David Foster Wallace which shows his view of life. It was even not surprising as the Time Magazine ranked ‘This is Water’ as one of the best commencement speeches ever given.

In this speech, David Foster Wallace brings to limelight some of the most important life virtues which are often neglected in our daily living. He started this by telling a short story of two young fish and an older fish. The two young fish even though they had lived all their lives inside the water had not adjusted their mind and thoughts to the obvious reality that they were surrounded by water. They were still in doubt of what water really is. He made it clear to his audience that even though this story seemed very clear and well known. It was the same reality that we face in our daily living—being able to come to the acknowledgment of that which seemed common but often neglected. He talked about the importance of embracing very important virtues necessary for survival. These virtues are to guide us in making decisions, in how we perceive life, how we relate with fellow humans in our immediate environment as well as helping us to maintain a sane and peaceful life.

One of such virtues, as he portrayed, is Compassion. We tend to be so much engulfed with ourselves that it becomes very difficult for us to think outside the virtual shell we created over ourselves. This shell makes us to think only about our own welfare. It is very difficult for us as adult humans to show empathy or even be sympathetic about what others are going through. We are engrossed with a very high level of self-centeredness, so everything just revolves around us. According to David Foster Wallace, this self-centeredness is not totally something we created or developed for ourselves but unconsciously this appears to be our ‘default setting’—a mode we unconsciously grew into and he emphasized that this is a wrong perspective that we have automatically sustained unconsciously. A good approach of coming out of this form of a lifestyle would be the art of teaching our minds what to think about and what course of life we need to focus our minds on. Essentially this art of ‘How and what to think’ as well as having control over what we think should be the goal of every higher education.

Other lessons from this piece include the importance of being well adjusted and flexible in life considering the busy schedule, boredom and the routine schedules of daily living together with the attendant depression that comes with the loneliness of adult life. Being well adjusted will ensure that you do not get easily frustrated and pissed off when things seem not to be going your way at any particular time. Rather, it enables you to be settled and choose what to concentrate or focus your mind on. David Foster Wallace used the typical normal life in America to show that life after graduation from college can as well be frustrating; from daily work routine to personal engagements and getting essentials of life like buying food from the shop and getting stuck in traffic. Most of these occurrences were not envisaged by you. This can become more frustrating when someone tries to overtake your vehicle probably with a noisy car, or speedily. You tend to pick offense on everything. But from his speech, if only you can realize that probably the persons in these big and noisy cars or trucks might have an issue more pressing or urgent than what you are going through: like a father driving his child who is sick or hurt and is being rushed to the hospital thereby putting them in a more legitimately hurry state than yourself, then you would learn to think differently and be more considerate.

Another captivating point that David Wallace made was that being considerate, compassionate, flexible and gaining full control of our thought pattern was not to be seen as a religious obligation but a means to improve the present living condition of humans; both the individual and his social surrounding. It can prevent depression, suicidal tendencies and make the present life worth living.

Contentment and the ability to choose what drives us in life are also emphasized in ‘This is Water’. The society places high value and premium on such things as wealth, strength, knowledge, power, and beauty thereby throwing humans back into ‘the rat race’ of acquiring and sustaining these things as much as possible to the point that we begin to lose our freedom of control and gradually become controlled by these things. This can also serve as an object of worship both to the atheists and religious persons. Regaining our freedom of being contented with what we have and not feeling inferior about what we seem not to have will create a rejuvenation in us and will help us set our priorities right. According to David Wallace in this speech if you place your highest value on wealth, then you may never feel you have sufficient. If you so value your beauty, you are likely going to feel ugly. If you are power drunk, you will always think you are weak and insecure. Worship your intellect and you will always think you are stupid. Therefore contentment as a virtue can save you from a lot of stress created through streamlined thought pattern and perspective.

Through this analysis of ‘This is Water’ by David Foster Wallace, the hidden yet most needed virtues for living like compassion, selflessness, broad-mindedness, patience, contentment, and mental freedom has been shown as some of the most needed yet unnoticed virtues for living and we have to open our minds to this level of consciousness.

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