My colleagues and I sometimes joke that it’s a small Wake Forest world – meaning, you might be on vacation somewhere and see someone in a WFU hat, or find out in casual conversation that you and a friend have a connection to some other Wake person that you never knew you did. Today is one of those small Wake Forest world days.
There is an article in the Huffington Post today about a legendary, famous commencement speech given at Kenyon College by novelist David Foster Wallace in 2005, and there is a Wake Forest connection. Evidently the Kenyon student who had a major role in getting him to be the commencement speaker is now a faculty member in our English department, Meredith Farmer. [Before I go any further, a warning to you, good readers. The Huffington Post article drops the F-bomb. Read at your discretion.]
The article, which you can read here, tells the story of how David Foster Wallace came to be the Kenyon commencement speaker, and in the article is a link to a YouTube video of the speech. It is not live video, it is audio overtop a still photo of him at a podium, with occasional quotes from his speech appearing.
The speech is almost 23 minutes long. It has been hailed by many as one of the all-time best commencement speeches. It begins with this:
“There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?'”
He talks about the value of a liberal arts degree in teaching you to choose what you want to think – whether to accept your default settings, or whether you will apply a different lens to your interpretations. He talks about the tedium of adult life – the stuff no one tells college kids as they graduate, but the stuff all the parents have experienced. He talks about being careful of what you choose to worship in life – money, beauty, youth – and what freedom is:
“The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom.”
It is raw, and sometimes painful. I have to admit I was conflicted at times listening to it, but in the end I found it amazing.
Take a listen to his speech and read the article if you wish. It might be the best 23 minutes I have spent today. His speech reminded me that we always have the power to choose what to think, or to let ourselves get sapped by our own day-to-day drudgery vs. thinking more broadly and kindly about the world. We get to choose that. But we have to be aware to do so.
And if you don’t have 23 minutes or this sort of thing is not your jam, then just marvel for a moment that at the center of this acclaimed speech was a Kenyon English-philosophy double major who found her way to Wake Forest to teach.