This is Water

“The most obvious important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about,” opens David Foster Wallace in his commencement speech given to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College in Ohio.  In this contemporary society, we are inundated by mediums to express our individuality- television has created a market placing captivatingly quirky characters at the top of entertainment, social media gives all with the means to access the World Wide Web a space to stand up, loudly professing, “Look at me, I’m important.”  Blogging crystallizes this idea of self-centeredness where people are free to share thoughts, express ideas, and stand out from the rest.

While there is nothing wrong with these platforms when used thoughtfull, they obstruct the minds of many to be able to think clearly, creating a highly myopic scope. “If I do not make a conscious decision about how to think,” David Foster Wallace continues in his speech, “and what to pay attention to, I am going to be pissed and miserable every time because my natural default setting is to resort to myself centeredness and wonder why all these people are in the way of my life.”

Think about the last time you found yourself in a scenario where your life was interrupted by someone else.  Was it because the person in line in front of you was paying with a check, soaking up your valuable free time?  Did your boss hold a last minute meeting on a Friday leading you to get caught in eternal traffic?  Mr. Foster adds, “If you have learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have options.  It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation not only as meaningful but sacred.”

Consider your average American morning where you are running late because the shirt you wanted to wear was not ironed, the dog found it more convenient to poop in the kitchen instead of outside; perhaps your favorite shoe horn went astray and getting your designer brand securely affixed is taking painstakingly too long or a run in your leggings has you scurrying to find a suitable replacement.  As you are running out the door you forget to say good-bye to your loved one or pet that ungrateful dog on the head.  It is in these moments that, if we paid attention to them, would be the hallmarks of our lives.  Living specifically for now- giving genuine salutations, does not take any time.  Acting consciously on these moments enlivens our soul.

Think critically about the following.  How does this excerpt from Mr. Wallace's speech relate to your life?

In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. Everybody worships. If you worship money and things then you will never have enough. Worship your own body, beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you die a million deaths before they finally plant you. Worship power and you will feel weak and afraid of never having more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect and you will end up feeling stupid, like a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

Traveling around the world is not a pre-requisite for coming to terms with this problem.  Overcome these unconscious forms of worship by being aware of them, by opening your mind to the reality that a plethora of ideas exist, probably seven billion of them, which converge to form planet Earth.  Channel negative worship to harness the “really important kind of freedom involving attention, awareness, discipline, effort, and being able to truly care about other people- to sacrifice for them.”

The irony of this speech is that David Foster Wallace succumbed to his own idealism.  Many years of struggling to cope with depression ended with his suicide.  If it is not clear, Wallace says sometime before his passing, “It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head.”  Every action, if not taken by a conscious choosing, by not extracting ourselves from our own self-centered lifestyle, will end up with a similar outcome to David’s, be it literally or figuratively.

Andrew Forsthoefel decided one day after losing his job to walk across the United States.  The only stipulation behind this not-so-thought-out-adventure was that he could not utilize any other mode of transportation beyond his feet, he would walk.  What was Andrew’s goal for the trek?  He did not have much of an expectation except that he would, being in his early twenties, ask people along the way, “What advice would you give your 23-year-old self?” So, with a sign slung around his neck saying, “Walking to listen,” Andrew set off.

Think back to the younger you.  What advice would you give this perhaps immature, know-it-all self?  Whatever conscious or unconscious path you have walked down in your life, David Foster Wallace’s remarks can guide your answer.

Those who hear about my travels often remark on how they wished they would have capitalized on the opportunity when they were younger, you know, before life got in the way.  When we decide to live consciously, stepping away from the rat race, it is a refreshing reminder to L-O-V-E-L-I-F-E.  During these moments we take control over what makes us happy or sad- the automated self-centered reaction is shut off, and bliss often times is the byproduct.

Choose to live consciously.  Choose to be aware of the happenings around you and choose to decide which ones are worthy of pursuing.  Choose to breath in seemingly pointless moments and absorb them for what they are worth.  Practice this fruitful way of being.  Work hard to live in this moment, increasing its duration every day.  It will not be easy; if it were more people would be doing it.  Finally, stand up; turn to Mother Earth and scream, “Love Your Life”

Author's notes:

If you are interested in hearing about Andrew Forsthoefel's walking journey across the United States, listen on This American Life HERE or visit to understand the motivation behind the trek. Further inspiration for this and most other thoughts I have are courtesy of everyone and everything I have encountered along my own twisty path around the world. 

"Go, explore the world.  You'll never regret it."