Whenever I am working on a mundane task at work or at home, I like to listen to something. When I’m cleaning, I like to listen cheerful, upbeat music that somehow makes sweeping up dog hair less of a chore and more of a dance party with my swifter.
When I’m at the computer I like to music too, but I also like to listen to interviews, speeches and podcasts. This week I listened to a commencement speech that’s almost ten years old. But even though it’s old, it is every bit as striking now as it was the first time I listened to it.
David Foster Wallace and I might not agree on everything, but judging just off of this speech, he seems like someone I would really enjoy talking to.
He really nails aspects of the adult life that no one really talks about! Like the mind-numbing routines which can slowly drain all of the excitement out of you (if you let them) and the exhausting and ridiculously frustrating experience of going to the grocery store after a long day at work when everyone else happens to be at the store, and consequently in your way, as well.
But then he talks about choice. We have the opportunity to choose what we are aware of and how we perceive it, how we perceive the people around us- our coworkers, the haggard woman in front of you in the express line with 32 items instead of 15, our spouses, and the person in the car in front of you. He compares our choice of awareness to fish swimming in water, but not even being aware of the water.
“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. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”
“It is about simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”
Check out a video excerpt of the speech here, or read a full transcript HERE. It is definitely worth your time. And then let me know what you think afterwards!
So now I’m working on what I am aware of and what my perspective is when I’m wading through my ever-full email inbox, stopped in traffic, or standing in line at the grocery store. I am choosing not to let minor frustrations build up and lull me into thinking that’s all there is.
To be honest, this is something I’ve been working on my whole life. David Foster Wallace was not the first person to bring this lesson to my attention. The first person to remind me to try to look at things from a different perspective was my mother. What a wise woman she is. It is so easy to think that our instinctual perspective is the right and the only one, and to not be aware of all of the other people and possibilities around us.
This is water. This is water.