This is water

Some commencement speeches earn the status of legend. One of those belongs to David Foster Wallace. He spoke at Kenyon College in 2005 (read it here). 

He starts with a story about two young fish swimming. An older fish asks, as they swim by, “how's the water?” After a pause, one young fish turns to the other and says, “what the hell is water?” His speech, deliberately not “grandly inspirational,” but urgent and honest, begs the graduates not to forfeit consciousness as they grow into their prosperous, respectable lives. Bluntly and earnestly, he argues that the authentic life is about attention: how you attend to life, and to other people; how you school your thoughts into worship of “some infinite thing” that matters; how to keep telling yourself “this is water, this is water.” 

Three years after giving this astonishing speech, Wallace committed suicide.  I don't know how, nor would I speculate about why, yet I can't help but wonder if he drowned.  

Give birth again to the dream

My acronymitis has turned into a full-blown case of white collar blues, so reading a bunch of commencement speeches from American colleges has left me feeling both inspired and sad. They're mostly from thinkers, talkers, writers, artists who tell their own stories of youthful aspiration, post-graduate let-down, career cul-de-sac, and triumphal creative emergence, and end with a stirring carpe diem. I'm encouraged by a persistent narrative of figuring out who you are, how you might bring your “deep gladness” to meet “the world’s deep hunger” (Frederick Buechner), how far passion can take you on the road to an authentic life, but at the same time I don't think I'm very far into that narrative yet. I'm post-post-graduate; ill-fitted and ill-at-ease, grateful for the money, doubtful of the value, wanting something much, much more, not quite knowing what it is.  Perhaps Maya Angelou can help. If you can forget that the dawn she refers to is Bill Clinton's inauguration, her poem is another stirring call to knowing the who, and the what, and the why, and the how all at once.  

Lift up your eyes upon
The day breaking for you.

Give birth again
To the dream.

Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands.

Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For new beginnings.