I seem to want to collect great commencement speeches, as is evidenced in previous posts on my blog. But Wallace’s speech is unlike anything I’ve heard or read for a graduation ceremony. It’s direct and real and addresses the challenge of living an authentic life within the mundane moments of every day. His perspective may seem bleak, but he is trying to get his audience, and himself, beyond the superficial pablum that is usually the focus of such occasions. Here are some excerpts:
“And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How 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.”
“If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default-setting — then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying. But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be 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. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”
“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 unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the ‘rat race’ — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”
I have not read any of Wallace’s novels or essays, but now I’m intrigued and may start with his most recent book of essays. Sadly, Wallace suffered from depression and took his own life earlier this year. (It seems that great artists – Van Gogh comes to mind – are more prone to have troubled souls than most.)
Go read Wallace’s whole speech to fully appreciate his message.