It’s funny the personal phases we go through as a result of events in our lives. I’m currently being treated for anxiety and, given that I feel like a raw nerve most of the time, you’d think I’d take it easy on myself emotionally. But no, I’ve dived headfirst into reading David Foster Wallace‘s writing.
He was a talented, intuitive author who killed himself in 2008. Probably not the best choice for regaining sound emotional footing. Wallace’s pieces, while dense and deeply concerned for humankind, do not radiate joy. Or, as I said to a friend, it’s a lot like listening to Elliott Smith’s From a Basement On a Hill posthumously. You read cries for help in every single word.
So, it was a bit of a lift to read Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College. Posted here and also published as This Is Water, Wallace talks about an individual’s default setting: “Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. . . Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of.”
One point of an education, whether through an institution or even through worldly experience is to realize that this assumption is not so. That there is more to the world around us than what we take for granted and the possibilities inherent in that realization.
The sentiment is very similar to the “Parking Lot” speech from A Serious Man. A young rabbi tells the man that comes to him for advice that God is everywhere, even in the dull, weed-cracked Midwestern parking lot outside his window. It’s easy to brush off his statement as pure inexperience of someone who doesn’t have the capacity to advise a man older and more troubled than himself. Until the final, ambiguous scenes of the movie, where a tornado touches down near a parking lot filled with students locked out of the shelter.
So, these are the two sentiments I hold onto as I get through these difficult days. “This is water.” “Look at the parking lot.” Sentences that seem absurd on the surface and could even be reduced to a cliche. But acknowledging that there is more to this world than just the thoughts in my head relieves the pressure. It’s an obvious step, but often the bare-faced, simple fact is the hardest to accept.