Saturday, May 11, 2013

" if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently"

Writer David Foster Wallace's 2005 graduation speech at Kenyon College has now arrived on video with appropriate visualizations.

It's all about paying attention to what you know.  About becoming aware of your  'default setting, hard wired into our boards at birth'  - the 'deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence'.

And realizing that we have the choice to change the hard wiring, to see the world differently.  To see others differently.

I'm posting the video because the fundamental purpose of this blog is to explore how we know the world and this video does that thoughtfully and entertainingly.  And more explicitly than most posts here.

Actually, there seem to be multiple versions of Wallace's speech. There's the version on the video.  The Guardian has an adapted version here.

More Intelligent Life has a version with an Alaskan reference (see bottom of post.)

Here's the ending of the speech that is basic (bolded part) to a paper I'm working on at the moment.
"The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness - awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: 'This is water, this is water.'"
(The speech starts and ends with gold fish who don't realize they are surrounded by water.)

When you read 'wanting to shoot yourself in the head,'  it's probably instructive to know that three years after this speech, at age 46, Foster hanged himself. Pursuing great themes and seeing past what most people (want to?) see, is sometimes a curse as well as a gift. 

*Since this is an Alaskan blog, here's the Alaskan story and relevant interpretation that gets into the nature of reality from More Intelligent Life's version:

There are these two guys sitting together in a bar in the remote Alaskan wilderness. One of the guys is religious, the other is an atheist, and the two are arguing about the existence of God with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer. And the atheist says: "Look, it's not like I don't have actual reasons for not believing in God. It's not like I haven't ever experimented with the whole God and prayer thing. Just last month I got caught away from the camp in that terrible blizzard, and I was totally lost and I couldn't see a thing, and it was 50 below, and so I tried it: I fell to my knees in the snow and cried out 'Oh, God, if there is a God, I'm lost in this blizzard, and I'm gonna die if you don't help me.'" And now, in the bar, the religious guy looks at the atheist all puzzled. "Well then you must believe now," he says, "After all, here you are, alive." The atheist just rolls his eyes. "No, man, all that was was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp."
It's easy to run this story through kind of a standard liberal arts analysis: the exact same experience can mean two totally different things to two different people, given those people's two different belief templates and two different ways of constructing meaning from experience. Because we prize tolerance and diversity of belief, nowhere in our liberal arts analysis do we want to claim that one guy's interpretation is true and the other guy's is false or bad. Which is fine, except we also never end up talking about just where these individual templates and beliefs come from. Meaning, where they come from INSIDE the two guys. As if a person's most basic orientation toward the world, and the meaning of his experience were somehow just hard-wired, like height or shoe-size; or automatically absorbed from the culture, like language. As if how we construct meaning were not actually a matter of personal, intentional choice. Plus, there's the whole matter of arrogance. The nonreligious guy is so totally certain in his dismissal of the possibility that the passing Eskimos had anything to do with his prayer for help. True, there are plenty of religious people who seem arrogant and certain of their own interpretations, too. They're probably even more repulsive than atheists, at least to most of us. But 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.


  1. One day I was driving down the road behind a truck that was going slower than traffic. We were in a rush to get hair cuts and then go to Pet Zoo to get one of the kids a bunny. (I KNOW that you probably hate pet shop animals, but this is my story and enjoy the beauty, OK? Our bunny lived for a long time and had a hoppy life with us for many years.) The kids got restless and commented on it and I said, "Hey, for all we know, the driver's wife is about to have a baby, so he is being super careful!"

    Well, the kids and I came up with a crazy story that included her sitting in the back seat in labor with a RESCUED gold fish on her lap, drinking really hot coffee that she needed to stop labor pains, that he himself had a fear of driving and had just gotten out of surgery, so it was really good that he was even out, etc. We were laughing, but I told the kids to cross themselves and to seriously pray for them. It was good that they were driving so slow so that we could pray for them! This all happened in roughly five minutes. I was able to safely pass him and he was wearing a distinctive fur hat.

    I went in to the hair cut place and as my then youngest son in the group who was five sat with his eight year old sister sat in the waiting area, who walked in but the driver of the truck! My son looked at the man's wife who was very much past child bearing age and asked her if she was ok. . . after an awkward exchange and that son asking and confirming that they drove a blue truck, he SHARED with them our story, resplendent with my inflections.

    As he and his wife were laughing, they looked at me for an explanation and I actually said, "Um, you may find this hard to believe, but I have never seen these children in my life."

    There was more laughter as those kids ran to me and hugged me, laughing and telling the folks that their mom was "very funny and a story teller, too!"

    I then explained what had gone on as we drove up a particular stretch of road. It turned out that they had car problems, appreciated our prayers regardless, and told me that I was doing a great job with my children.

    So the moral of this story is, choose an alternate reality, but be careful on sharing it. (I liked this so much that after I wrote it I had to share it to my FB page for the kids for my Mother's Day story.)

  2. I love it. And it's good to hear from you. Happy Mother's Day.


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