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David Foster Wallace was born February 21, 1962 in Ithaca, New York. He was an American novelist, short-story writer, and essayist. He was the son of a philosophical professor and an English teacher. In 1985, Wallace received his B.A. from Amherst College, and was working towards his master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Arizona. Wallace’s work inspired the lives of many. Several well-known writers often cite him as an influencer such as Matthew Gallaway, David Gordon, and many more. Although Wallace positively impacted others, he often struggled to follow his own advice. He had battled depression since his early twenties, and after various failed attempts of finding effective antidepressant medication, he took his own life.
In 2005, David Foster Wallace presented a commencement speech to the 2005 graduates of Kenyon College, a liberal arts college in Gambier, Ohio. Wallace’s speech, This is Water, was powerful due to the relatable style, heartfelt and genuine tone, and the targeted audience. Wallace delivers this dialogue comprised of different parables with distinct messages behind them. Each message contributes to his main purpose of his speech which is to think empathetically. He ultimately wants his audience to pay attention to the world around them instead of being self-centered.
Wallace’s This is Water commencement speech begins with Wallace amusingly stating, ‘if anybody feels like perspiring cough, I’d advise you to go ahead, because I’m sure going to.’ This humorous tone grabs the attention of the audience from the start. Wallace continues by
introducing two young fish who come across an older fish passing by. The old fish says, ‘Morning, boys. How’s the water?’ The young fish continue swimming and one eventually goes, ‘What the hell is water?’ Although this may be a simple story, it has a deeper, philosophical meaning we can delve into.
The first life lesson you can extract from David Foster Wallace’s This is Water speech is to first look deeper into the water parable. The young fish are not paying attention, they do not acknowledge the water and often take it for granted. The older fish understands the water and has learned to see its beauty. Wallace is sure to point out that he himself is not a ‘wise fish’, he is still learning too. This gives him credibility, otherwise known as using an ethos appeal to his audience. As you can see, this is an example of us being the fish and water being the day-to-day grind. We are so focused on what is happening in front of us that we miss out on the small beauties of the world. Luckily, as we grow older, we learn to appreciate everything around us.
Another story presented by Wallace is about two guys sitting together in a bar in the Alaskan wilderness. One being an atheist, and the other religious. The atheist was stuck in a blizzard completely lost and unable to see anything. He had gotten on his knees and cried out, ‘Oh God, if there is a God, I’m lost in this blizzard, and I’m going to die if you don’t help me.’ The religious guy was puzzled, saying, ‘Well you must believe now. After all, here you are, alive.’ But the atheist guy rolled his eyes and responded, ‘No, man, all that was a couple Eskimos happened to come wandering by and showed me the way back to camp.’ Both men had constructed entirely opposite opinions on the situation that occurred based on their beliefs.
The second lesson from Wallace’s speech is that every person has the freedom to look at life differently. Wallace believes you have awareness stating, ‘you get to decide how you’re going to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.’ Everyone has a ‘default setting’ that is hardwired into them since childhood. We are innately the center of every one of our experiences. The goal Wallace is trying to justify is to alter your instinctive, default-setting. Being able to interpret everything outside of your ‘lens of self’ will allow you to be well-adjusted. Although sometimes it is inevitable to fall back into your hard-wired setting, with practice you can improve and progress.
The last story Wallace presents to the graduates is a situation many have likely experienced. I, myself have been in this situation countless of times, which helps me determine that this is the most powerful part of his speech. He mentions how you are just getting off work and have to rush to get groceries before heading home, and seemingly every little thing begins to irritate you. The checkout line is long, and then when you eventually leave to head home you drive through slow, heavy traffic where you find ‘patriotic or religious bumper- stickers that always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest.’ This is when Wallace’s pathos appeal hits home and generates a great applause from the audience who unequivocally have experienced a similar situation.
With all of that being said, David Foster Wallace delivered this brilliant speech with benevolence to his audience. Throughout the speech, Wallace puts a heavy emphasis on certain words that he wants to stick out to the audience, especially when he is trying to make a point. His delivery throughout most of the speech is humorous which helps keep listeners engaged. He comes off trustworthy and continues to point out that the graduates do not necessarily have to change the way they perceive life, he is just giving them an alternative perspective and they are able to do with that what they will. His stories successfully keep the graduates enthralled and allow them to make their own personal connections. Towards the end, he effectively unites all three lessons into an overall purpose, which is to be mindful not only of yourself, but also your surroundings – to stop thinking in your default setting. David Foster Wallace’s unfortunate suicide helps increase the emotional appeal and advises the audience that his underlining message should not be neglected.
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