david foster wallace this is water

David Foster Wallace’s This is Water

This is Water is a powerful essay-cum-speech on compassion, awareness and choice.

I recently stumbled across American writer, David Foster Wallace, through his 2005 essay and commencement address, This is Water.

Said by some as the greatest commencement address of all time, This is Water does not contain the usual platitude clichés which are all-to-often woven into other commencement addresses.

In this essay-cum-speech, you will not find advice on how to find your passion or how to follow your dreams.

Instead, Wallace talks about the mundane of life. The day in, day out monotony that is a reality for most-if-not-all of us. Wake up, go to work, come home, eat and go to bed. Repeat this for weeks, months and years. It’s the “boredom, routine and petty frustration” of an everyday white collar worker’s life.

He talks about how humans have a default programming of thinking our view is the only view and how he operates on “the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.”

But it’s an essay that is ultimately about compassion, awareness and choice.

It’s about reframing situations. He says learning how to think, “really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.”

It’s about seeing the wonder in the world. “It is within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars – compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things.”

He says there’s no such thing as atheism because “in the day to day trenches of real life” even so-called atheists worship something, be it money, beauty, power or intelligence. This type of worship, he says, is unconscious and our default setting.

“Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is 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 world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings because the 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.”

He makes his points by telling three stories. One of two young fish, the other of a conversation between an atheist and a believer, and the third about a trip to the supermarket after a hard day at work.

I’m in awe at how brilliantly written it is as are many others judging by the response it’s received over the last twelve years. It’s powerful literature. Real talk, as we might call it today.

Sadly, Wallace was plagued by mental health issues from a young age and took his own life in 2008. It makes the piece all-the-more poignant especially as he references suicide in it.

The full title of the essay is, This is Water. Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion About Living a Compassionate Life. You can find a full-text transcript of it here but it’s best to listen to the man deliver it himself.

This is Water speech

Bonus video. This is an edited video of speech created by a video production company which I really like too.

Written by Ste Davies

Ste ‘Stephen’ Davies is a freelance digital consultant, traveller, writer, podcaster and speaker based in London, UK. You can reach him here or follow him on Twitter below.

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