In the summer of 2012 I found myself in a serious déjà vu situation.  I was at the Bren Events Center at UCI listening to the names of 3,000 El Toro High School graduates, anxious for the M’s to come around in the alphabetical order.  This time I was sitting in the bleachers instead of the front row.  My baby brother was the one graduating, but the whole experience felt so familiar that it could have been me receiving the diploma.  I wore the very same style of cap and gown, walked down the same isles, tripped down the same stairs, and sat in the same seats.  Two years ago, this was my graduation.  I enjoyed these reminiscent feelings for a moment, until the chosen student speaker got up to give her speech.

Nausea and annoyance replaced nostalgia as the bubbly girl spoke tot he crowd in the squeakiest voice I had ever heard.  The girl was an A+ student, ASB president, accomplished, pretty.  Yet she was in dire need of either public speaking skills, or a dose of originality, or both.

“‘Oh, the places you’ll go,’ said Dr. Seuss.  And oh boy are we going places, Chargers,” she started.  I rolled my eyes.  I rolled my eyes during her speech countless times in reaction to the cheesy cliches, weak motivational encouragements, and boastful lists of school accomplishments. It was dry and uninspired.  As I sat there in the Bren Center I thought, “This must be the same speech given at every graduation ceremony right now.”

David Foster Wallace

My assumption could very well have been true for the Summer of 2012, but in 2005, what has been called the greatest commencement speech of all time was delivered at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.  It’s titled, “This is Water,” by David Foster Wallace.  Following my brother’s graduation, I had a whole summer to contemplate what places I was going and how my own senior enthusiasm from graduation had diminished as I grew older.  I was so excited to go out into the world during those last days of high school.  I was even pumped up listening to my year’s cheesy high school commencement speech.  However after the two years that had passed between the graduation of classes of 2010 and 2012, I didn’t feel like I had gone anywhere.  I needed inspiration.  I found it in Wallace’s speech.

The 15 Most Inspiring Videos of All Time,” was the title of the LinkedIn blog I read where I found “This is Water.”  Thinking I wouldn’t have the time or motivation to go through all fifteen, I clicked on the first because I knew it would be the best.  Within the first few minutes I knew I had to read along as I listened.  The YouTube video was just a recording of Wallace’s voice.  That voice spoke phrases so rich I couldn’t stay focused just by hearing them.  I wasn’t focused, but actually wanted to be. So I Googled the speech, found a word for word transcription of it, and followed along.

It started like this: “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys.  How’s the water?’  And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?'”

Pause.  Re-hear.  Re-read.  Fish don’t actually know they are swimming in water.  How could something so obvious be such a mystery?  My curiosity was tickled here, but was left at that because Wallace went on to discuss whether there is any validity to the signature commencement cliche, “My education taught me how to think.”

It’s insulting to say that we students don’t know how to think. But instead of taking this as an insult, we should see it differently: “It isn’t really about the capacity to think, but rather about the choice of what to think about.”

He told a story of an atheist and religious man arguing about the atheist’s salvation from an Alaskan blizzard.  The religious man said it was God’s grace that saved him; the atheist said is was the two Eskimos who happened to pass by.  This is where Wallace’s speech really hit me: “Religious dogmatists’ problem is exactly the same as the story’s unbeliever: blind certainty, a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up,” he said.

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

Starting off, I had the sense that the speech would be something special.  This single sentence packed such a punch of truth that my expectations were exceeded.  I’ve personally experienced the zeal of a religious dogmatist as well as the heat of an argumentative unbeliever.  Wallace is right.  Both of them are blindly certain about what they believe in.  As much as the religious man can be wrong about the existence of God, the atheist shouldn’t be so certain that God didn’t send the two Eskimos to save him.  Wallace was discouraging this blind certainty.

As he went on speaking, it was as if Wallace was talking to me face to face.  He told me “to have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties,” because there is a big chance I could be deluded and totally wrong.  It was like Wallace saw right through me when he said I hold that “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.”  It’s a certainty I shouldn’t be so sure of.  It’s just that “other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real,” he said.

What we have to do is rewire our hardwired tendencies to think with blind certainty.  “Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think,” Wallace said to me.  “It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

“It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

The next strongpoint of “This is Water” was when Wallace said, “You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.  You get to decide what to worship.”  There is no such thing as atheism, he argued.  Everybody worships something, whether it be Jesus Crist or Allah, money, beauty, pleasure, power, or intellect.  We get to choose.

I wondered what gods I worship.  Work, school, lacrosse, myself.  No matter the religious or material god we choose to worship, however, “none of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.”  He said, “The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.”

We have to have a simple awareness of this life and what it means to be in it, to interpret it.  Like fish, we have to remind ourselves, “This is water.  This is water.”

The more I started to see Wallace as an old sage mentoring me, the more his ethos was enriched.  It didn’t hurt that he was so humble in his delivery.  I could tell that he had come to all these lessons from learning them himself.  Every word he spoke had total power over me for the video’s entire 20-minute duration.

David Foster Wallace committed suicide by hanging himself in 2008.  By the time I graduated high school there was no possiblity that he could have spoken at my commencement. Thankfully, I’ve heard him speak through the wonder that is modern-day technology.

In “That Different Place,” Andreas Kitzman says, “Death— or at least the anxiety produced by the recognition of its inevitability— is somewhat stayed” when someone records great detail of themselves.  My sage didn’t present well known fables or accepted dogma in “This is Water.”  He gave something of himself, a spoken representation of what went on in his own mind.  Through his writings and spoken words that were recorded in various media forms, Wallace’s wisdom survived when he did not.

Wallace spoke to a crowd, and through technology speaks to an even larger audience today, but I am sure that the personalized feel of his speech affects every other individual listener out there just as it did to me.  As basic as it was, with just a fixed picture of Wallace shown as audio played over, the video was a record of a unique and priceless moment in time when Wallace was present, brilliant, alive.  Advancement of technology seems both daunting and exciting, depending on who you talk to.  The ability of technology to preserve human experience and share it via new media, however, is what I have to thank for my “swim” with Wallace.

Wallace spoke ideas that appealed to me on a deep level, and with an eloquence that I could never hope to imitate.  Other young people who are as lost as I used to be, or people who were just not satisfied with their cheesy high school graduation speeches should listen to him as well.  “This is Water” would not only enlighten them, but show them someone they can aspire to be like.

It is one thing to listen to an academically accomplished 18-year-old list can-drive statistics or homecoming game highlights, but there is nothing like listening to a master of language share worthy ideas that move the tortured, wandering, starved soul of the typical college student.

Although I will soon find myself in that déjà vu situation again when I graduate from Chapman University in two years, and although whoever speaks there will not be as good as Wallace, I’ll have his words with me to encourage me to see past blind certainty and interpret my experiences with simple awareness forever.


One Response to “Swimming”

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