David Foster Wallace was an American author who also taught English and creative writing at university. He won many awards including a Pulitzer Prize in 2012. Like many people, he suffered from mental illness – depression – and took his own life on September 12, 2008.
Three years before his death, Wallace accepted an invitation to give the commencement speech to the graduating class at Kenyon College. The speech was a very good one, regarded as the best commencement speech ever given by Time Magazine. It was recorded, transcribed and was used as the foundation for a book titled “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.”
When you listen to the speech, his tone is flat and the delivery is very “matter of fact.” This is a bonus because it forces the listener to pay attention. When you spend any amount of time viewing and listening to these types of speeches you quickly develop a sort of immunity to the flowery platitude rich messages, presented in such well rehearsed oratory fashion that it’s easy to forget the venue and who the actual audience is. This Is Water isn’t like that, and that’s why it is so easy to hear what he is saying.
Life is hard, boring, and every day is almost exactly the same. There are so many people that we cannot help but constantly be in each others way. While we all have the same basic needs, each one of us has a unique struggle to meet them. We need food, so that means we need money, so there are jobs. These jobs are, for the most part, pointless experiences of repetitive nonsense performed for its own sake. Few of us do something that has any higher meaning or that contributes anything to the future history of humanity. The experience of life is awful for most people. Endured for too many decades and ending with no fanfare. It peaks too soon, and from around the mid twenties, we physically decline. Vitality is replaced with aches and pains as our lust for life fades, substituted with a growing sense that maybe the entire thing has no point.
Whatever sense of meaning we had at the beginning of the journey is revealed to be a mistake or a lie, as the only thing that ends up being real is the growing amount of work we have to do.
And this is true. Life is not easy. Staying alive requires constant effort to find food, shelter, security, connection and purpose. And it is this final one that we innately get wrong. Maybe we were raised to believe that we would change the world, that our birth would mark a new end and beginning point in human history. And while that is true, it isn’t very true. We matter, just not very much. There are too many people for any one person to matter. Our species has effectively reproduced itself into the position of devaluing any and every single individual. Your value is one seven and half billionth of the collective worth of the human race.
No, purpose is not something we are born with, it is not an innate trait. When we mistakenly assume that by meeting our needs for food, shelter, security and connection that we will be living a purpose filled life we are setting ourselves up for disappointment, at best, or a life of struggle, torment and confusion as the more likely.
That is what I take out of “This Is Water” and I believe that is the essence of Wallace’s message. Life is meaningless. Being alive is not, in and of itself, sufficient enough to make living worthwhile. But we need meaning and purpose as much as we need food, and shelter, and safety, and connection. It is too easy, almost automatic, to become nihilistic a few years after we leave school and have begun our careers. Being an adult is a daily reminder of the utterly pointless nature of being alive.
Except that is only the truth when we choose to not put the work in to see it any other way. Meaning is a completely abstract thing while also being very real at the same time. Like water to a fish, it is necessary for survival, but rarely do human beings take the time to see meaning and purpose as so essential to our survival that we spontaneously and unconsciously manufacture them out of absolutely nothing just to make sure it is there.
Being alive is not a purpose, getting your survival needs met is not a purpose. These things are essential for living a life of purpose, but are insufficient at creating and sustaining the will to continue to work hard, day in and day out, to make life a little bit better each day. When we lean completely on them to give our life meaning, we park our progress in the bad part of town only to wonder months or years later why everything of value has been stripped away and sold as scrap.
Living a life of meaning will only happen on purpose. It requires conscious effort that is focused and sustained over time. It is mindful and deliberate. It is the consequence of looking at the world, your life and LIFE in general and then making the decision to see that you have the choice on what body of water you are going to live in, and then doing EVERYTHING you are capable of doing in order to get there. Even if you never make it, your life will have had meaning simply because you did the things that give it meaning.
Meaning cannot and will not happen by accident as the only automatic is the unhappiness associated with ONLY meeting your survival needs. You will get by, and that is all you will get.
Living a life of purpose and meaning is not easy. It requires clarity and constant effort. It is work. But so too is living a meaningless life. The only difference might be the moment to moment experience. A life thoughtlessly lived on autopilot is the soul crushing existence described in Wallace’s speech. A life lived with care and deliberateness is, if nothing else, a life filled with distraction from the day to day tedium.
Life is going to be hard. It will be work regardless of what you do. Find out what you want, and direct that effort towards the things that make it a little bit better each day.