Monthly Archives: September 2008

Novelist David Foster Wallace’s Ironic Commencement Speech

Friday, September 19, 2008, I was reading the last page of the “Weekend Journal” in The Wall Street Journal.  It was adapted from a commencement speech given by David Foster Wallace to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College.  Mr. Wallace, 46, died recently, an apparent suicide.

I thought it odd that an entire page of The Wall Street Journal was dedicated to the musings of a man who opted out of life after giving advice to young people just beginning their adult foray into the trials and tribulations of existence.

The main focus of his presentation to the students seemed to be on the issue of self-centeredness:  “It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.  Think about it:  there is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of.  The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever.  Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real – you get the idea.  But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called ‘virtues.’  This is not a matter of virtue – it is a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”

First, he is “right on” with the hard-wiring of self-centeredness.  I remember my mother telling me once that when, as a teenager, she experienced the death of her mother from breast cancer, and was consumed with grief, that she looked out her window to see people outside driving, walking, talking, and going about their business as though nothing had happened.  She related feeling shocked that, somehow, the whole world did not stand still as did her own heart.

It is obvious that, of course, we are the most absorbed by our immediate environment and experiences….which pretty much means ourselves.  However, Mr. Wallace’s consistent dismissal of virtues is perhaps what was missing from his life. Seeing, acknowledging, and caring about others does not necessarily come naturally.  It is a virtue taught by parents and community as well as by religious teachings.  One of the most central aspects of religious training is to “love thy neighbor.”  Why?  Just because it’s “nice?”  No, although it is nice.  It is because caring for those outside yourself gives you a connectedness that minimized loneliness and a purpose which minimizes despair.

Towards the end of his speech, he points out:  “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little un-sexy ways, every day.  That is real freedom.”

He then asks the audience to “please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon.  None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma or big fancy questions of life after death.  It is about making it to 30 or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head.”

So, in attempting to enlighten the young people about a bigger value in life – commitment and obligation to others – he came back to his essential hard-wiring:  it is all about living in a way which makes you not want to kill yourself.  Ironically, his thought process came all the way back to being self-centered.

In eschewing morality, religion, dogma, considerations of eternity – all of which he assembled under “finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon[s],” he disconnected himself from the kind of motivation, identification, support and spiritual reward which may have kept him from committing suicide.  Sad, really.

Personal Responsibility and the Presidential Election

I am watching TV news early this morning and hear that Senator McCain is suspending his campaign for President of the United States to stay in Washington, D.C. to actually do the job he’s been elected to and getting a salary for.  I also hear that whether or not a plan is agreed upon to deal with the financial crisis of the United States, that Senator Obama will leave Washington D.C. early this morning to continue his campaign for President.

After talking to one of my friends who quipped: “McCain is using this opportunity as a campaign maneuver.”  I said, “Hey, he’s actually doing the job he’s being paid for.”  I am always impressed when a politician takes personal responsibility to actually do their job.

Unfortunately, by noontime, Senator McCain apparently had decided that he had completed the job and decided to call it a day and head off to join Senator Obama for a long weekend of campaigning.

What other job is there in the known universe where you can get elected, have a nice title, get paid a really good salary, have fabulous job security for two to six years, and then spend most of your time working towards another job?  Only the job in Congress!  We have Senators from Arizona and Illinois who are spending just about every waking hour vying for the Oval Office, and a Governor from Alaska together with a Senator from Delaware who are trying to get second dibs on Air Force One.

I, for one, believe that they all should have resigned to run for further office, and left the support of their constituents to someone who’s doing the job full time.

Quote of the Week

Life becomes harder for us when we live for others, but it also becomes richer and happier
               -  Albert Schweitzer
                   Alsatian philosopher and physician
                  1952 Nobel Peace Prize recipient


Marriage 101: Priming the Pump

Putting romance in your marriage contributes to its success.

So many callers tell Dr. Laura that they never have “time” for romance in their marriages.  If you’re a long-time listener, however, or you’ve read some of her books, you know how Dr. Laura feels about the importance of keeping your marriage alive with small day-to-day kindnesses and reminders of the love that brought you together in the first place.

Watch Dr. Laura’s video blog on one of the most basic things you can do to keep your marriage strong.

Or watch other videos at

T-Mobile is Off My Radar

Perhaps you’ve seen the TV ad?  It begins with a family scene, where the father has gotten one of that company’s cell phones, which permits the selection of certain people as “favorites.”  Everyone is making suggestions as to who should be among his “favorites,” and the eight-year-old son, in front of Mommy, suggests that Dad put in the number of the woman he stares at during the son’s ball games!  There is absolutely no reaction from anyone.

The teenage daughter then suggests her boyfriend (who has a mustache), and the Dad says that the “fine print” indicates that no kid with a mustache is permitted, and then he proceeds to call his daughter “dude.”

Using behaviors destructive to families is not my idea of good sales practices.  T-Mobile is off my radar.  I can’t imagine a group of executives sitting around in a brainstorming session thinking this would make for a great sales incentive.  I can’t imagine TV executives agreeing to play these ads.  I can’t imagine anyone at home watching and thinking “this is cute,” and feeling driven to buy T-Mobile’s products or services.  I can’t imagine ever buying one of their products.

Good Guys vs. Bad Guys in “The Closer”

I have been a big fan of the television show The Closer, starring Kyra Sedgwick.  It has a great ensemble cast, and it’s fun to watch the (generally implausible) twists and turns as she has those “aha!” moments, based on some innocuous comment made by someone totally unrelated to the situation at hand.

One recent episode, however, ended on an entirely amoral note.  Frankly, the plots are often too complicated to summarize, but here goes: an illegal alien takes sanctuary in a church to avoid deportation and to avoid becoming a murder victim at the hands of international drug-dealing “bad guys.” The bad guys are “setting up” the illegal so that he will end up in prison, where they can kill him for his lack of loyalty.  Apparently, if you’re the target of a “hit,” being in prison makes you quite accessible, because you’re surrounded by bad guys who’ll contract out the job in exchange for cigarettes, comic books, or whatever.

A policeman from the drug-providing country comes to “help,” but turns out to be one of the bad guys.  Kyra, the “closer” of the title, upon discovering his true mission, threatens to put him in jail under the name of the illegal in order to 1) scare him into talking, and 2) possibly give the illegal good guy a new identity.

I thought that the threat was a clever ploy.  However, the “bad guy” foreign policeman didn’t collapse under the threat.  Kyra followed through with her threat, and he was subsequently misidentified as the illegal alien “good guy” and murdered while in custody.  Now the illegal alien had his own special type of witness protection program.

The program actually ended that way – with no one questioning the immorality or illegality of Kyra setting up the foreign cop for murder by his fellow bad guys.  It just ended up with everyone being content with the outcome.

While it is particularly satisfying to me when bad guys get their just deserts, it is not satisfying to watch role-models misuse the system to exact their own vengeance.  I was tremendously disappointed with the writers and producers, and with Kyra for agreeing to leave the story line intact.

Promiscuity and Social Networking Websites

Turns out that the latter leads to the former!  Recent research by the University of Buffalo Department of Communication and the University of Hawaii reveals that the people who watch reality television visit social networking websites to engage in behaviors like the celebrities they see on shows like American Idol or Survivor.

When people on reality TV are rewarded for their behavior, it communicates to the (usually) young audience that these behaviors are good things.  These so-called “reality” TV shows depict people being exploitive, deceitful, hyper-emotional, vengeful, conspiratorial, sexually promiscuous, generally undignified, immodest, self-centered, and basically exhibitionistic.

According to the university research, “heavy reality TV viewers may adapt personality traits association with celebrities….Reality TV even may be to blame for the erosion of the distinction between the everyday world and the celebrity world.”

This phenomenon is encouraging young folks to make personal information about themselves publicly available online.  We’ve all heard about the proliferation of youngsters sending photos to each other and through the Internet, revealing their genitals and showing themselves engaged in various sexual acts.  Instead of this being “shameful,” it’s trendy.  Parents are becoming way too lax in allowing their children access to electronic equipment, from cell phones to the Internet, without any supervision.  So, with a little “push” and little “pull” back, kids are getting themselves into situations which will impact them for a lifetime.

When children behave like out-of-control celebrities, including drug use, sex, having out-of-wedlock babies, “shacking up,” and testing their parents’ limits as well as the limits of the law, they are less likely to be studying, participating in sports, or contributing charitably in their neighborhoods.