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.