St. Ignatius is the man. Although he started his life as an arrogant narcissist, he went on to attend one of the best universities of his time, found the Jesuit order, and promote education around the world. St. Ignatius accomplished much in his life, and with his values of education, reflection, and intention, it makes sense that Boston College reveres him.
But St. Ignatius is not the only person that BC holds in high esteem. There is Rev. Gregory Boyle, S.J., who founded Homeboy Industries. There is Colum McCann, author of “Let the Great World Spin.” There is Brene Brown, a social worker and creative force behind the Ted Talk “The Power of Vulnerability.” There is Marina Keegan, author of the essay “The Opposite of Loneliness.”
And there is David Foster Wallace. Although Wallace wrote many novels and short stories in his career, he is perhaps most known for his 2006 commencement speech at Kenyon College, titled “This is Water.” In this speech, Wallace argues that choice is the best important part of adult life because it is only through choice that life has meaning. When people say a liberal arts education teaches you how to think, they really mean it teaches you “how to exercise some control over how and what you think.” That is, a liberal arts education teaches you that you have a choice in what you think. Exercising this control, Wallace says, is the only way to keep from “going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.”
Understanding that you can choose what and how you think may seem painfully obvious, like how the presence of water should be painfully obvious to the fish who live in it. But it’s not for one simple reason: we are hardwired to think and view situations through the lens of self. People are, in short, selfish. And because we automatically think about the world around us in relation to ourselves, we never actually choose what and how we think. A shift from the paradigm limited by the self is difficult, but yields a crucial realization: “love, fellowship, [and] the mystical oneness of all things deep down.” A liberal arts education opens students to the choice of how they view and what they view about the world.
This speech is nothing short of beautiful. It is moving, funny, and short enough for a commencement speech, but long enough to be thoughtful and impactful.
I hated it.
I remember reading the speech and being filled with irrational rage. This was unbelievable! Wallace is limiting college graduates, the very people poised to change the world, to only changing their mindset. Doesn’t he know that there are much bigger issues that face the world? Doesn’t he understand that people, whose biggest problem is the long line at the grocery store, are incredibly lucky and privileged? Doesn’t he know that there are people in the world to serve? Doesn’t he see how hypocritical it is to argue against selfishness, and then encourage students to only focus on their own thoughts and experience?
Most importantly, doesn’t he see that choosing what to think is an exercise in futility? That no matter what you think about, the situation remains the same? The traffic jam has not magically disappeared. The line at the grocery store has not gotten shorter. Suffering and starvation have not been eradicated. In short, nothing has changed.
Only now, however, can I see that when you actively choose how you think and what you think about, everything changes.
Amy Poehler provides an example in her brilliant book, Yes Please. Everyone, she says, lives with a demon in their minds. This demon tells us we are not beautiful or capable or worthy. This demon chips away at our self-esteem until we have none. But, Poehler writes, “through good therapy and friends and self-love you can practice treating the demon like a hacky, annoying cousin. Maybe a day even comes when you are getting dressed for a fancy event and it whispers, ‘You aren’t pretty,’ and you go, ‘I know, I know, now let me find my earrings.’”
Poehler is talking about the ability to reframe, which is exactly what David Foster Wallace argues for in his commencement speech. Instead of allowing her demon to dominate her head and her heart, Poehler recognizes that there is a problem and then chooses to think about something else. And because of this choice, something wonderful happens: Poehler’s actions change as a result. Instead of looking in a mirror and worrying about her appearance, Poehler decides to continue getting ready and then go to the event. Instead of being paralyzed by what she thinks she lacks, she moves through and focuses on what she can do.
It is only through reframing that our actions can change. Yes, sometimes reframing can seem trivial in comparison to the problems that plague the world. Yes, there are issues that we face that cannot be solved by only reframing how we view the situation. Yes, reframing can be hard when we have been told how we are not beautiful or capable or worthy.
But such a shift is a crucial first step to addressing these issues. A shift in thinking just about ourselves to thinking about ourselves in relation to others, and others in relation to ourselves, promotes actions that reflect this shift as well. That is, soon our actions will not be solely based upon our desires and immediate needs, but instead based upon what we can give and how we can serve other people. Perhaps it is a listening ear. Perhaps it is a hug. Perhaps it is our love and compassion.
I no longer hate David Foster Wallace’s speech, because I think that he is right. Reframing is crucial to handle the frustrations and boredom and obstacles of life. Reframing is the crucial first step to not only saving your life, but for affecting positive changes in your own life, the lives of those around you, and the world.
Featured Image by Breck Wills / Heights Graphics