A most remarkable young man with a tragic ending. A writer of great talent who may have developed into one of America’s truly great writers and visionaries. (I personally was not a fan of his writing but I admire talent—and especially a deep, thoughtful heart– wherever it may be found.) At this time I just want to focus on one moment of his short life: a commencement address he gave at Kenyon College in 2005. It is almost a legendary commencement address by now. He did not speak in platitudes or in the usual clichés thrown at graduating seniors. His surprising theme: the key to living a compassionate life. Not the usual topic for a commencement address. Here I would like to touch on some issues that he raises and try to connect these to our own spiritual journey and even to our own religious institutions.
The first point of advice he gives to the young graduates: Ruthlessly question your own beliefs and assumptions. In some respects this sounds like an intellectual cliché, but he is pushing it into areas of life that people are not comfortable with. This from a piece on Wallace in the Huffington Post:
“Wallace is quick to dismantle our preconceived notions about the liberal arts cliche that education “teaches you how to think,” and makes it the goal of his discussion to illuminate what this platitude really means. And it’s not just about critical thinking or the ability to analyze or argue well.
An important part of truly learning how to think, he says, is becoming “just a little less arrogant” — having some awareness of how little we actually know, and behaving accordingly.
“To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties,” Wallace explains. “Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.”
“I don’t know” can be a very profound position in life! We are all little tyrants of certainties that are anything but that, but alas our egos require certainty as one of its credentials. There is a built-in arrogance in the self-centered vision that we all normally carry about. So something maybe does come along and shakes this up a bit and knocks some of that arrogance off. The ancient Greek tragedians already had an inkling that knowledge (which they loved) easily brings hubris and arrogance, and it is only suffering that brings wisdom(and they knew that from experience!) Now by this we do not mean to put “ignorance” on a pedestal or laud a perpetual invocation to everyday agnosticism. If you are designing a bridge, please do get it right! “I don’t know” will NOT do! No, what we are talking about is more like the human dilemma of being human, of talking about the things that matter most to our hearts, of that which relates us to each other and to that Ultimate Reality which speaks to our hearts. Yes, certitude and real knowledge can be found even here, but it will only be on the other side of a Great Divide that is usually only crossed at great cost, in the giving of one’s whole self, in the embrace of both life and death, through unspeakable suffering. So this “certitude” and this “knowledge” will be so different from what usually passes as such in this world that it will almost be unrecognizable—but it will be marked by a profound humility, it’s only clear sign.
Now we can push our line of pondering in yet another direction: what if we apply these same words to our collective personas, our nation and our church. The United States of America and the Catholic Church are two institutions that especially live wanting to “breathe certainty” in all they say and all they do. This inevitably leads to a hubristic posture with sad and even tragic consequences. But the ability of an institution to question its own assumptions and beliefs and the language it uses to convey these is limited by the ability of its members to do that on an individual basis within their own lives. So the usual thing is that they come to accept that institutional certainty as totally natural and a true state of affairs and so nothing changes.
The next point Wallace raises: Growing is a movement from narcissism to connection. Here is the HuffPo writer on this: “We live and think from a completely self-centered place, says Wallace — and of course, it’s natural to perceive all things relative to ourselves. This is the way we automatically engage with the world — self-centeredness is our “default setting.” A very monastic perspective. A very Buddhist notion. Here again is Wallace: “”It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” Each of the great spiritual traditions wants to take us on this journey from narcissism to connection, but it is clear that our society and social order as a whole works totally against that kind of growth. So this is heavy medicine for these young graduates, who are so at home with the connections that their electronic gadgets bring but who for the most part are very much unprepared for the deeper connections of life that require a real self-sacrifice.
Then Wallace makes this point: Stay present and open. Here he is very Buddhist. Here again from the HuffPo article:
“Wallace’s address touched upon an ancient truth: The mind is naturally unruly, and if we are to live with a sense of freedom and peacefulness, we must take some measures to gain control over it. Wallace quotes the old cliche, “The mind is an excellent servant but a terrible master.”
‘It is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive,’ says Wallace, ‘instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head.’”
Wallace further makes the point that for true compassion true attentiveness is necessary. But we live in a culture and society that values distractions, that wants to keep us distracted by creating false needs and fantasy images. At the very end of his address Wallace puts it very succinctly and very cogently: “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”
He makes one other point that may make some people very uneasy and be easily misunderstood by many others. He says simply: Create your own meaning. What does he intend by this statement? He is referring not to simple everyday meanings but to the “Big Picture” of our life. In a sense we have a choice, like in the Life of Pi, what story will we accept and live by. But he takes an especially sharp turn with these words: “You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.”
“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”
Indeed! Good advice and not only to young graduates from a beautiful person. Sad that David Foster Wallace was later overrun by mental illness and is no longer with us. His luminous words stand out and still speak to us and his presence is with us wherever any small act of love takes place, unnoticed and unrewarded, but marking again and again that the darkness cannot overcome the Light.