January 22, 2014

Water, in its Clearest Form. ~ Cailyn Flynn

The real value and freedom of a liberal arts education lies in how one chooses to think about and perceive the world around us, because perception is a matter of choice, not a matter of fact.

To have a liberal arts education literally means to be informed of subjects and skills that, according to Classical Antiquity, are considered essential for one to know in order to lead an active civil life. Such knowledge ideally produces a virtuous, knowledgeable, and articulate person.

Presently, to have a liberal arts education is defined less as “what one knows” and more so as “how one thinks”.

David Foster Wallace, in his speech, “This Is Water”, not only illustrates the value of a true liberal arts education, but also that “how one thinks” is a matter of choice—

—choosing to live consciously rather than as a slave to a self-centered, instinctive “human default setting,” provides a means through which one finds meaning to life, happiness and reverence.

Wallace was a literary scholar who authored several respected literary pieces in addition to “This Is Water”  before committing suicide in 2008; three years after his presentation of the speech to Kenyon College’s graduating class. Wallace was an award winning novelist, short story writer, essayist, an English professor at Illinois State University and a creative writing professor at Pomona College.

He was most widely known for his 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, which was cited as one of the 100 best English-Language novels from 1923 to 2005 by Time Magazine (Lacayo, Grossman).

David Ulin, the book editor for the Los Angeles Times, called Wallace “one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last twenty years” (Noland, Rubin). Graduating seniors of Kenyon College’s class of 2005, as well as those in attendance, recall David Foster Wallace as “intense”, “peculiar in the most captivating way” and “inwardly focused” during his presentation of “This Is Water” (Hartnett).

For those that do not see “This Is Water” as a foreshadowing of tragedy, it is portable wisdom, layered with Wallace’s complex and tragic pathos, urging his audience that the real value and freedom of a liberal arts education lies in how one chooses to think about and perceive the world around us, because perception is a matter of choice, not a matter of fact.

Wallace argues that an individual’s inner consciousness and awareness comes from the means to control the “how” and the “what” of our thoughts. Those that don’t take control are “totally hosed” (Wallace). He argues that our human default-setting and the way we construct meaning from experience is “natural, basic self-centeredness,” and that our self-centered thinking tends to be unconscious.

Wallace also asserts that life is monotonous, but the petty monotony of life is fertile ground upon which one can exercise choice.

He eloquently phrases the contrast between being unconscious and being aware, as well as the benefits of living consciously on page six:

“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 are not annoying and miserable. But if you really learn to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars: love, fellowships, the mystical oneness of all things deep down… The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna see it.” (Wallace)

Wallace suggests that this power to choose is the freedom of a real education. We get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t, as well as how we construct meaning from experience.

David Foster Wallace’s argument can be seen in all aspects of one’s daily life. He acknowledges that the world we live in does not offer any outlet to deter one from operating on their default setting, because the “so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and frustration and craving and worship of self” (Wallace).

Society and human psychology alike do not make it easy to choose to live in the manner in which Wallace suggests. Humans, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, are motivated to fulfill certain demands and the next demand cannot be satisfied until the precedent one is fulfilled. Using this principle, Maslow divided human needs into five hierarchical categories, with basic needs filling the bottom tier and self-actualization occupying the top tier.

Maslow noted that everyone is capable of achieving higher-level needs and self-actualization, but most cannot because progress is interrupted by failure to meet lower-level needs due to the life experiences David Foster Wallace casually refers to as “petty monotony” (McLeod).

Living consciously is a hard and active choice, and more often than not, people fall short and revert to behaving on their natural, unconscious default setting. Perhaps it is for this reason that people, much like Wallace, lapse into common issues such as depression and anxiety.

The overwhelming need to satisfy our psyche’s demands and our mind’s default-setting conflict ion with ambition and aspiration leave one feeling helpless and bored. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 1 in 10 adults reports depression. Depression and mood disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders.

By inference one may assume, based on Wallace’s argument that most everyone naturally operates on a default setting, which changes the lens through which we see the world to be one of constant self-centeredness and annoyances. Operating on this setting is most likely a commonality between those diagnosed with depression and mood disorders.

Although depression is not a phase one can just “snap out of,” choosing to look at certain situations differently than how one with depression immediately or naturally sees them may alleviate the constant hopelessness or frivolity that haunts them.

Depending on whom one asks, “This Is Water”  is a powerful and practical guide to living a good life, or a chilling precursor to David Foster Wallace’s suicide. On page four of the transcribed version of the speech and in small gestures throughout his dialogue, Wallace discusses suicide. He asserts that of adults who commit suicide with firearms, most aim the weapon at their heads because they seek to silence the “terrible master,” in reference to the common cliché, “the mind is an excellent servant, but a terrible master.”

One could argue that because Wallace includes these sinister asides that he, like most, struggles desperately to maintain the type of lifestyle that he so earnestly urges his audience to adopt. Cable New Network’s mental health expert, Dr. Charles Raison, suggests that “suicide attempts are a cry for help, or a way to punish people they are upset with, or a means of controlling situation… The vast majority of people who choose methods of
suicide that are almost guaranteed to succeed… do so because they are losing a battle against major depression” (Raison).

However, in a morbidly ironic way, Wallace, who suffered from major depression, committed suicide not with a firearm, but rather a noose.

Practically speaking, those who commit suicide with a firearm do so because it is quick and often the most successful way to go about it. Choosing to commit suicide by means of strangulation not only leaves room for error or intervention, but also leaves one to assume that the person involved was not fully committed to death. In this case, one might infer that David Foster Wallace had naturally fallen into the “default setting” he so eloquently describes in “This Is Water,”  and momentarily unable to foresee any improvement or to remove himself from his natural, unconscious state, took his life by an uncertain means of death as a “cry for help”.

Dr. Raison also insinuates that suicide is very selfish means to an end. Many who take their own lives prior to the action fail to consider the long shadow they cast over those that survive them (Raison). It is due to this selfishness that suicide can be considered an action performed while operating on the human default setting.

The negative uproar that stemmed from the recent crowning of American-Indian, Nina Davaluri, as Miss America 2013 is another appropriate example of action based on unconscious belief. Women both young and old have idolized the Miss America Pageant for decades. The most beautiful girls from all over the country come together, each unique and representative of the country’s ideals in their own ways, and compete for the title of “Miss America”.

The winner is traditionally a blonde, blue-eyed, girl-next-door, all-American sweetheart, and that’s what society expects.

So when Nina Davaluri, an Indian New York native, took the title, America didn’t know what to do. Americans claim to be open-minded and accepting of all types of people. In fact, America is called a melting pot, and for a reason: it is culmination of a plethora of ideas, cultures and customs from everywhere on the earth. However, some continue to uphold the idea of white, “American” supremacy over others, for no other reason but ignorance and stubbornness, as the word “American” covers a very broad, diverse amount of people.

The reaction Nina Davaluri received in response to her rightfully won title was not only unwarranted, but also a demonstration of how those that disagree with the outcome chose not to acknowledge Nina’s worth or talents, but instead focused on their own ideas and opinions of what Miss America should be, a classical example of self-centered reasoning.

In addition, Michelle Dean’s article, “Here Comes the Hillbilly, Again,” referencing six-year-old Alana Shannon and her show, “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and similar shows, claims that we watch so-called “trash TV” because we need to be reminded that our lives and behaviors have not reached the same level as the people we watch on TLC, MTV, or Bravo.

Its society’s equivalent to self-help therapy.

In her essay, Dean takes on a cynical tone. She appears judgmental and unsympathetic towards Honey Boo Boo and her mother June. The same cynical tone, however, can be interpreted as satire towards the audience that watch shows like that of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo”.

Especially at the end of the essay, Dean makes an incredibly harsh statement about Alana’s pageant performances, but gestures towards the idea of the American dream—“pulling yourself up by the bootstraps”. Dean suggests that society has forgotten the “American Dream,” and that instead of making the best of what we have, we need to ostracize those that live differently than we do in order to feel normal.

The solicitation of others’ situations as a means to improving our own lives is another example of the human race operating on “the automatic, unconscious belief that [he is] the center of the world, and that [his] immediate needs and feelings should determine the world’s priorities” (Wallace).

Life for many people consists of just “going through the motions” day in and day out. We all naturally succumb to our “default setting” that enables to turn off empathy, compassion or understanding to focus solely on our needs and ourselves.

David Foster Wallace in his commencement speech for Kenyon College’s graduating class of 2005 defines and illustrates what it means to live life on a default setting in great detail. He urges his audience to live fully aware of their options and ability to change the way they see the world. He also expresses that the liberal education they received is more than just an education in books and critical thinking; it is freedom and consciousness.

It is arguable that this speech was Wallace’s forewarning of his impeding suicide and a cry for help. Perhaps he wanted others to be aware of him and his story. Or maybe he wanted others to live differently than he had in order to prevent them for becoming as unhappy and unsatisfied with life as he was.

Whatever the reason David Foster Wallace chose this subject, his central message is powerful and noteworthy:

We get to choose how we live. One can choose to live consciously and aware, and reap the benefits of doing so, or he or she can let their selfish, unconscious mind govern his or her life naturally, and accept boring and miserable.

This choice is what makes the difference between being educated and simply being informed. But, as Wallace points out in his closing remarks, “education really is the job of a lifetime” (Wallace).

Humans, because our wants and needs are inwardly and selfishly motivated, must actively exercise choice and awareness, and the occasional jolt back to reality, much like the one “This Is Water” offers. This is a necessary tool through which one may remind themselves of his or her choice.


Note from the Author:

This story was a contextual analysis argument I wrote as a term paper for my Critical Reading and Writing course at Loyola University New Orleans. It is based on David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech, “This Is Water” can be found online, in hard cover and on YouTube. Most have probably heard Wallace’s story via forwarded emails from parents and coworkers, but it’s a message with more than one meaning and one that we need to more actively pursue.


Works Cited
Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “An Estimated 1 in 10 U.S. Adults Report Depression.” CDC. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31 Mar. 2011. Web. 06 Dec. 2013.
Dean, Michelle. “Here Comes the Hillbilly, Again.” Slate. 2012 Aug. 2012. Web. 4 Dec. 2013.
Hartnett, Kevin. “He Was Water: Kenyon Grads Remember David Foster Wallace’s Commencement Speech.” The Millions. 09 May 2011. Web. 04 Dec. 2013.
Lacayo, Richard, and Lev Grossman. “All-Time 100 Novels.” Time Entertainment. Time Magazine, 06 Jan. 2010. Web. 02 Dec. 2013.
McLeod, Saul. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.” Simply Psychology. 2007. Web. 03 Dec. 2013.
Noland, Claire, and Joel Rubin. “Innovative ‘Infinite Jest’ Author Won Critics’ Raves.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 14 Sept. 2008. Web. 04 Dec. 2013.
Plank, Elizabeth. “What I Say to Miss America, And Anyone Who Still Thinks Women’s Beauty Is Only Bikini-Deep.” PolicyMic. 16 Sept. 2013. Web. 04 Dec. 2013.
Raison, Charles. “Psychiatrist: I Hate Suicide but Also Understand It.” CNN. Cable News Network, 08 Aug. 2012. Web. 02 Dec. 2013.
Wallace, David Foster. “This Is Water.” Kenyon College 2005 Commencement Ceremony. Kenyon College, Ohio. 21 May 2005.
Weber, Bruce. “David Foster Wallace, Influential Writer, Dies at 46.” NY Times. New York Times, 14 Sep. 2008. Web. 05 Dec. 2013.

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Cailyn Flynn