The Art of Living Well and David Foster Wallace

I feel like I’m about to take you out on the tennis court and tell you, “Now watch me.  This is how McEnroe does it.”  Who am I kidding?

Some unsung editor at the Wall Street Journal just published a university commencement address given by the author David Foster Wallace in 2005 which relates to our school motto, ”To teach the art of living well.” besides being one of the best pieces of writing I’ve come across in a long time.  I was thinking of reprinting it here in full, but I’m not familiar with copyright laws.  If you would like to see the whole thing, email me and I will send you a copy.  My interpretation of it is just as poor of an approximation as my tennis is of McEnroe’s game.

Right from the start, I’ll tell you it was published because of the author’s recent suicide, which kind of detracts from his message, but I feel it proves depression is a chemical imbalance and has nothing to do with the thought mechanics itself.

He tells them, “The liberal-arts cliché about ‘teaching you how to think’ is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: ‘Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

A good part of adult life, he says, is boring, petty, and unsexy.  He gives the example of going home after a long day and realizing you have to first stop at the supermarket.   “The store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out: You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day-rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register.”

He then makes the point that this type of common frustration is where the work of choosing comes in.  We can automatically fall back on our default setting of thinking we are the center of the universe and be miserable every time we go  food shopping, or we can consider the other shoppers and how they are just as bored and frustrated as we are.  It’s our choice.  We can control how and what we think.  It’s hard work, and some days we can’t do it, or just won’t want to.

We decide what to worship, and we all worship something, he tells them.  Non-worship is not an option.  Without religion, we tend to worship things like our bodies, our intelligence, or raw power.  These will eat us alive, and we all know it, but the problem is to keep the truth up-front in our daily lives.

I am reminded of visiting my son when he was living on the outskirts of North Philadelphia.  He had to drive to another part of the city on an errand, and I went along with him.  Almost as soon as we got on Roosevelt Boulevard, we got tied up in traffic that had slowed to a crawl.  I started to fume, but he took it all in stride, even the occasional jerk butting in from the shoulder.  He fully expected all of this, and, in retrospect, it was a rather pleasant trip.  We were warm and dry.  We had time to talk—or not, as we wished.  We had a radio.  What was not to like?

Isn’t “the art of living well”  this control of our thinking, directing it away from our own destructive petty concerns to what will support our well-being?  Isn’t this what they tried to teach us in high school?  I’m just a slow learner.

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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