There happens to be whole, large parts of adult American life that no one talks about in commencement speeches.
It’s the season for commencement speeches. A season I love, I keep a post-it note on my own computer from Steve Jobs’ 2005 Stanford commencement address. The post-it note is faded and bent, worn and tired. But there’s rarely a day I don’t see it. I see it right now…
Advice at the moment of transitions in our lives is helpful, but rarely sinks past the skin at the moment we hear it. Sometimes it’s upon reflection and maturation that we look back and realize how much we value wisdom we’ve heard. It’s as if advice has to brew. It’s just this past year or so that I’ve really embodied the concept of “Be a willow, not an oak.” That was the message delivered at my older brother’s high school graduation. Clearly it struck me then, enough to remember it, but the advice only got heart-deep this past year, some 20+ years after I first heard it.
This 9-minute snippet from David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College (my beloved Alma Mater) is worth your time. I’ve listened to it three times in three days. I suggest this will change not only your day, but your year. This is the type of parenting advice I love most: it’s marketed as life advice, college-graduate advice, or advice for the young. Yet all the while it’s actually perfect for we frenzied, over-worked, tired, callous-handed parents. The monotony, the hard labor of caring for young children is rarely glamorized and never snags enough attention to make it worthy of a speech. I think David Foster Wallace’s wisdom is profound and on-point.
The most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.
I am so thankful for the education I’ve had and so thankful for the teachers that support, enhance, enliven, and give my children perspective. This address is so relevant to anyone who has gone to school. Modest, humble advice on how to pay attention is something we can all use, all the time.
His message crested for me just before minute 7:
It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important– if you want to operate on your default settings. Then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred…on-fire with the same force that lit the stars. Love, fellowship…
Peter Elias says
Thank you very, very much.
Peter Elias, MD
Just re-read DFW speech from our alum magazine the other day and passed it on to my Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course teacher since it hits so beautifully on awareness, the present moment, mindfulness. Love that you just posted this. I’m thinking that a post-it saying “This is water” would be perfect for my computer 🙂
Thanks for sharing the video! Like how it brings the speech to life.
I had already seen this video but I love your insight regarding parenting. Of course it fits! I was so moved by the short film and grateful to discover the full text of the speech as a result. I printed it out and have saved it to show my children one day. It captures the essence of living a good life.
My sister (who seems to know and live all things good and inspirational) just sent this to me again last week. Wonderful women in my life lead me in the same directions it seems!
Kathleen Berchelmann, MD says
I love DFW too. He and I shared the same alma mater, Amherst College. Sadly, he took his own life a few years ago.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
I know he took his life. I don’t think his mental illness and suffering from depression diminishes what he says. I’ve heard more than a few people suggest this…
Suicide may be more a failure of our health system than a failure of person or self, morals or strength. Particularly when it comes to witnessing a keen ability to observe, feel, and hover in one spot long enough to know something that others don’t, like we do here. Even more ~ I’m astounded by people who are then brave enough to share insight and wisdom with the rest of the world.
Best 9 minutes I have spent this week.
I love this video. It feels very in line with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which utilizes mindfulness and the observing self to engage in acceptance and committed action. A feature of this therapy acknowledges the ubiquity of human suffering and offers strategies for defusion from automatic thoughts. All of this is aimed at increasing psychological flexibility in order to pursue a vital, meaningful life. While we cannot choose all of happens in our environment nor the automatic thoughts that pop up, we do have a choice about whether to engage in struggle with those thoughts/adding unnecessary suffering to our experience, or choose another lens.
As a therapist in the early phases of conducting ACT therapy with clients, I’ve been amazed already at how empowered clients feel at the concept of choice in their internal world. I too think that these sorts of strategies/lens’ can be particularly useful for parents who’s job in life is to contain not only their own internal worlds, but also be a safe haven as our children figure out how to react in the world amidst their own internal landscapes.