Life and work in the mind of a literary giant

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David Foster Wallace gave the commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005. It was popular enough that an audience member transcribed the speech from a video tape, and for a while it lived a second life on the internet, eventually being published in a thin little book called “This Is Water.” You can read an excerpt of it below. 

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.

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 own 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 plant you.

On one level we all know this stuff already — it’s been codifi ed as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story.

The trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep fear at bay.

Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

And so on.

Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it’s that they are 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 along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the 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 center 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 talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.

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 little unsexy ways, every day.

That is real freedom.

That is being taught how to think.

Excerpted from THIS IS WATER Copyright © 2009 by David Foster Wallace. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.