The Best Reminders from David Foster Wallace

Aidan Fogel Smith is a Humber College student in the public relations program.

I urge you to read the full text of the speech, as well as listen to Wallace as he presents. His speech brings the words to life.


Listen to the full speech here.

David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech was given to the graduating class of Kenyon College, 20 years after Wallace’s own graduation. Three years after this speech he died, and only then did his essay get published into a book and become widely known. It was called This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.

This is Water is one of my favourite speeches for a number of reasons. The main reason is David Foster Wallace himself. He was a bold, and exceptionally witty author, and an amazing speaker. He was more than passionate about his work; he speaks with the sort of humble honesty that is so rare it almost is unheard of. He had a way of making complex ideas not only comprehensible but somehow also humorous and light.

Wallace addresses some of the most unfortunate flaws of human character that become all too common, as we grow older: lack of interest, empathy, and compassion.

It is often the most obvious, important realities that are the hardest to see and talk about. It is easy to slip into a semi- conscious; uncaring state of being simply due to the perpetual trenches of adult life. The seemingly endless repetitions and frustrations often get the best of us, and somewhere along the line we become disengaged, and evermore self-centered. The plague of dissatisfaction stems from a lack of awareness.

“It is extremely difficult to stay alert & attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monolog inside your head.”

Wallace states that the main purpose of education as a whole is to become well adjusted, sympathetic, and conscious individuals, because those are the qualities needed to thrive as an adult. Most importantly, education teaches us the ability to be conscious and aware enough to exercise control over how and what to think. If you learn to pay attention you see that you decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.

That is the freedom of education, and learning how to be well adjusted. It takes effort, and discipline and being willing to care about and help other people in simple ways, everyday. When we make the choice to pay attention we choose compassion, and empathy, and we improve our own lives and the lives of the people around us.

“It’s 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.”


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