David Foster Wallace is dead. Died a few years ago, actually. Result of his own hand. A talent gone way too young – only 46.
So what? you say. Who is David Foster Wallace (DFW)? DFW was an American writer who had the capacity to see beyond something to the reality behind it. He could peel back the smiling skin and expose the grimacing skull with a turn of phrase or a line. He was a brave, fearless writer who, in helping us confront our demons, succumbed to his own.
But so what? you persist. What does this have to do with me? Perhaps his bravest piece ever was a spoken address at Kenyon College’s commencement ceremony a few years back. Kenyon is an elite liberal arts college in the US, where bright young things end up just before they are launched onto an unsuspecting public via advertising agencies, various media and communications companies.
And what did DFW have to say to the cream of the crop? “This is Water”. It’s a searing indictment – a prophetic sermon – that starts with the old story of the grizzled goldfish swimming up to the young fry and asking “How’s the water?” “Water?” they query, “What’s water?” Fish don’t think about water – they just swim in it. It’s like the oxygen they breath, it is the oxygen they breath. And DFW was warning these bright young things that they aren’t even aware of the culture they are imbibing. They arrogantly think they know it all, have it all, and can see everyone else for who they really are. The trouble is, they don’t realise what they are swimming in.
Here’s the killer quote from the speech:
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.
So chilling. So true. I could take you to a dozen Christian best-sellers that say the opposite of this. That are encouraging to worship things that will eat you alive. DFW was no orthodox Christian, but he knew water when he saw it.
When he had finished his speech they applauded him like there was no tomorrow. Of course they did. That’s what bright young things from Kenyon College do at commencement ceremonies. That’s what swimming in water does to you. It dulls you to the prophetic sermon that is a searing indictment of you and all you stand for.
I’m speaking this weekend at a retreat for a Perth church. I want to alert people to the water they are swimming in, to make them aware of the air they are breathing. “This is water.” I will be saying.
What water are you swimming in? Whatever it is, don’t die a thousand deaths for the sake of it, before they finally plant you.