Life is all about perspective.
I stumbled upon this video last week. At first I hadn’t recognized it was a commencement speech, which makes it even more inspiring because it is food for thought designed to be fed to young adults who have their entire lives ahead of them.
The first part about how mundane adult life can get reminds me of one of my favorite movies, Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides. Ironically and sadly, David Foster Wallace comitted suicide three years after this speech, after fighting a lifelong battle with depression. It makes one wonder if those most aware of the mundanity of life are not also those who suffer most deeply from it. The point of Wallace’s argument is that as college students, we are not yet aware of how boring life can get if you let it. The example he uses is grocery shopping. As individuals, we tend to make everything about us. We go to the supermarket hoping to get out of there as fast as possible, then get annoyed at those 5 minutes we have to wait at the check-out line, thinking how slow the cashier is and how weird/gross/stupid other people are.
But here comes the beautiful point of the speech: “it just depends what you want to consider.” We can go through life believing the world is unfair to us because we need everything to be exactly as we would want it to be. But as college-educated young adults, we should realize the world is not against us at all. In fact, if the world is unfairly rigged (which it is), it’s probably in our advantage. That time at the check-out lane? Well, we can either use it to fuss about how we really think everyone is inferior to us, or we can use it to set some perspective. To realize that each person has their own story and that the world does not revolve around us. Everybody else is not “just in my way.” Setting perspective allows us to let go of the “default setting,” of the state of mind in which we believe all this. It allows us to think, to really think and not just judge. The SUV example is a striking one: we drive on the freeway with all those heavy SUVs around us, which let’s face it is annoying because they’re huge and polluting and represent everything that’s wrong with consumerism. But maybe the people who drive them have a good reason to. Maybe they need to because it is the only way they’ll feel safe. And sure, this is unlikely but it got me to think, how often to we judge situations which we know absolutely nothing about?
Finally, Wallace links all of this to the commencement speech, and thus to the world of higher education. The perspective he talks about, that is what education is for. Education gives us awareness about the world that surrounds us. It allows us to critically analyze and make choices when it comes to what to think and how to think. Education opens the possibility of not being stuck in a pre-destined path. It helps consider the fact that we may not know everything, that we may not be right in determining what matters and what doesn’t. It makes you free. Because at the end of the day, what we learn at school is not material – well, it is in part, but that is not what matters. What we learn is how to think, and that it is possible to change the lens through which we see the world. We are so sure of our surroundings that we may need a little reminder of them, in order not to take them for granted. Education teaches us to be well-adjusted and to recognize the things around us. It allows us to feel the meaning in the popular phrase “Have a nice day,” instead of just uttering empty words. “This is water.”
When my mother spent a semester at art school in Los Angeles, coming from the Netherlands she had always been taught to paint in a traditional way because tradition is always better, right? Well, her professor asked if Vermeer wouldn’t just simply have used a camera instead of a paintbrush, had he been alive in 1986. To this day it remains one of the most important questions anyone has ever asked her, because it made her look at things differently. Maybe it’s time for us to look at things differently as well. I will conclude with what in my opinion is the most powerful part of his speech, and which I have paraphrased above. “This is the freedom of real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning, and what doesn’t. That is real freedom. That is being educated and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting.”