A commencement speech by David Foster Wallace about living a compassionate life.
By Laura Goehrke
Tomorrow, February 21st, 2014, would have been David Foster Wallace's 52nd birthday.
In May of 2005, the author was invited to give the commencement speech at my alma mater, Kenyon College. Now, at the time, I was just a sixteen year old, not even aware that Kenyon would be my future collegiate home. But 2005 happened to be the year that my oldest brother John graduated from the same institution, which was the reason for my attendance on that beautiful spring day—a day that a speech would be heard for the first, but not nearly the last, time. Wallace, who previously had written novels such as Infinite Jest and The Pale King, as well as non-fiction essay collections such as Consider the Lobster and Both Flesh and Not,delivered a speech, which later was titled, “This is Water: Some thoughts delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.”
Author David Foster Wallace
The content of Wallace’s speech is about exactly what the title implies: living a life filled with compassion by choosing awareness. Having three older brothers, as well as close friends in different classes than my own graduating class of 2010, I’ve seen more than a handful of commencement speeches in person. But none have ever matched up to the imprint that this speech left on me, and more importantly, has continued to leave on me as I maneuver through the neverending maze of adulthood. I actually remember sitting there in 2005, on my folding chair outside on the lawn of one of the campus’ most beautiful buildings, about 27 rows back, and thinking…"This is different. These words are important.” It almost seemed like this was the collective consciousness of the entire audience—we could all feel that Wallace’s message would leave a big impression.
The stage on which Wallace gave his speech in 2005 at Kenyon.
His speech was widely applauded, but it did not truly make waves in the mainstream culture until, unfortunately, after his death in September of 2008. Wallace had been suffering from depression for over twenty years, and towards the end of his life, he had been struggling with his medications, and had tragically committed suicide.
At this time, I was beginning my junior year at Kenyon. When I heard about his death, I immediately went back to reread it, and I was taken back to my memory of first hearing it, but simultaneously was interpreting it with a new meaning as a twenty year old. Since 2008, a small book has been published, which has become a common gift to give to college graduates, similar to the Oh, The Places You’ll Go obligatory present for high school graduates. And in May of 2013, a creative video with excerpts from the “This is Water” speech went viral on youtube. Time.com even listed it first in their list of top ten commencement speeches.