Welcome Week 2.0 has come and gone. And now like most University of Michigan students, all my work has managed to pile up, and the stress has too. It’s sad to say, but I experienced shortness of breath as I walked to the Law Library this morning. I kept repeating, “Woe is me!” in my head as I braced myself for the upcoming week. And this isn’t my attempt at some Woody Allen schtick — some kind of blind neuroticism. It’s the truth, pure and simple.
So before I sat down to write this, I attempted to snap out of this disgustingly self-indulgent state and took 25 minutes out of my work-filled Sunday to listen to David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College from May 2005. Unlike many other commencement speeches, Wallace managed to go beyond the usual graduation clichés. Instead, he reminded the audience how hard and important it is to “(get) free of (our) natural, hard-wired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered” so that we have the mental space to actually “care about other people.” Crazy thought, eh? And you know what — to my high-school self, it sure was. I remember reading Wallace’s speech at my dad’s suggestion. But as a stressed student with limited perspective (things don’t seem to change), I don’t think I really picked up on the lessons my dad (or Wallace) was trying to teach me.
I read it again for the second time this past fall, but I’ve been putting off writing or even thinking about it. I’ve been afraid that my musings would never be appropriately intelligent or thoughtful, but this fear has only delayed the need to fully process it.
His speech has defined my year. After reading Wallace’s words this fall, I listened to his delivery on YouTube. Afterward, I began reading up on Wallace — articles about his personal life, work and his eventual suicide. However, my involvement went beyond basic Internet research; Wallace now seems to creep up everywhere (and not just in some blog’s suggestion to be the ghost of Wallace for Halloween). When I attended a meditation session, Wallace’s words were re-iterated — the importance of not letting experiences out of your control upset you. As I washed dishes with my roommate with whom I shared the speech, we discussed the importance of context in understanding individuals. Having used his own instructions about understanding and appreciation in our perception of him, we applauded ourselves on being “so DFW!” (Having read, listened to and experienced the speech as many times as I now have, I feel that we’re on an initials-basis.)
But, why now? Why did his advice that “(deciding) how you’re gonna try to see it … so that it will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred … ” resonate now? I’ve read his speech before, but only now did I internalize it. Partly, it was the realization that Wallace makes brilliant ideas accessible. He was not “presenting himself as the wise, older fish.” He personalized these struggles.
But mainly, my internalizing of his speech was a testament to the power of humor. I laughed at his delivery of “What the hell is water?” and at the punch line to the story about the atheist and the believer. Laughing made his speech more palatable. By not taking himself too seriously, his messages did not become what he calls “banal platitudes.” Wallace’s speech, packed with intellectual ideas, clever observations and valuable lessons, can feel dense at times. However, these moments — these pauses — provide the time and space needed to fully digest his (at times preachy, but enlightening) advice.
His delivery also took the bitterness out of the descriptions of the “soul-killing muzak” in the supermarket or the cashier’s “have a nice day” as the “absolute voice of death” and injected them with humor. On the page, his critiques can appear angry, limiting the potential contagion of these compelling ideas. However, once infused with humor, these concepts, no longer dampened by anger, ring that much more “capital-T True.” Only to prove and remind me that a little laughter, a little self-mockery and little less self-importance can go a long, long way.
Zoe Stahl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.