David Foster Wallace Speech: This is Water

This is a speech that the author David Foster Wallace made to the graduating students of Kenyon College, Ohio, in 2005. For most, Wallace’s life-affirming talk was about the necessity of making one’s own life decisions instead of doing things simply out of duty, as well as seeing the importance and value in everything that occurs day to day rather than letting the monotony of life grind you down. Wallace was funny, succinct, honest and hard-hitting without seeming preachy. He put into words what most cannot, leaving his audience not only amused and entertained but wiser and conscious of the reality of their futures. He casually uttered sentences that I really wish I could have heard as a teen, his calming words affirming that the confusing, painful time of adolescence really does build towards something greater.

Although I felt overwhelmed and inspired by his speech, I also felt a great sense of sadness when I realised Wallace was practically offering the audience advice on how to combat depression. As well as making the normality of life seem beautiful he also made it seem like a terrible struggle. Tasks like going to the supermarket can be unpleasant (mostly due to the people that inhabit them) but Wallace forced himself to feel false pity just to be able to stomach those around him. His hatred could grow so immense that he would have to give strangers imaginary, devastating pains just to follow through with his shopping. Yes, it should be taken on board that those acting unpleasantly could be secretly suffering, but I think this is quite an extreme way of thinking. Instead of replacing one anxiety for another, why can we not just let that emotion go? Instead of finding meaning in everything, what’s wrong with just focusing on things that are important to you? Surely overloading the brain with emotive conflicts is detrimental in the quest for happiness.

What makes this speech even more contradictory is that, two years after addressing Kenyon College, Wallace committed suicide. He had suffered with intense bouts of depression for two decades, the anti-depressants and electroconvulsive therapy prescribed for him proving unsuccessful. He obviously couldn’t overcome the day to day struggles that he relayed in his speech.

To me the fact that this ‘This is Water’ video resonates with so many people over the Internet is a little worrying for it indicates an unconscious worldwide gloominess. We all seem to be struggling a little with boredom, listlessness and apathy. Religion means nothing, the government is impenetrable, teachers have zero hold on the youth and our neighbours could be a terrorists or a paedophiles. We are all alone, lazily fighting each other for reasons unknown to us. Our children hate us, we hate them, we don’t know where we are or what we belong to. We’re scared of making mistakes and hope that others make them first. We don’t want to go outside, we don’t want to get fat, be poor, be stupid, be boring, be unknown, be left behind. We know what everyone is doing but we’re connected to no one.

This could turn out to be a form of universal depression associated with dystopian ideals, but Wallace was right: it all depends on the way we look at it. We could actually think of ourselves as technologically evolved, able to communicate with anyone at any time and part of an incredibly advanced community. Religion has no hold on us because it is no longer required, our politics could be altered if enough of us truly wanted it to be, we no longer feel scared of our teachers (and consequently of education) and we can choose to ignore stereotypes and moronic suspicions brought about by the media. We are able to travel anywhere, we have access to so many foods and cultures and experiences, we can never utter the phrase “I am bored” and we can more or less lead an unrestricted life. We may have less money than we once did, but we’re all in the same boat. We can choose to appreciate that fact.

It is incredibly sad that Wallace couldn’t bypass the nightmarish storm in his head but his words and his works inspire us never to give up. His life is a perfect example of what man can achieve if he chooses to battle his own demons, even if they do eventually win.

Emily created Dystopic in July 2012 after requiring an outlet for her love of dystopian and apocalyptic fiction. Her debut novel 'These Unnatural Men' was published in 2018.


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