This was the title of David Foster Wallace’s commencement address given nearly a decade ago, on May 21st at Kenyon College in Ohio. I have not yet been able to read Foster Wallace in long form, but I have read some essays and articles, which I admired.
This is Water threw me. It is so true, and that is what scares me. In the speech Foster Wallace speaks about our reality, how we all choose the meaning we construct in each everyday moment and how, without self-awareness, the meaning that is often automatically constructed is a negative, solipsistic one.
He knew what I know. He, like me, probably happened upon it the hard way. He called it the Capital T Truth of Life Before Death. He knew that it is easy to star in one’s own show; easy when you are young, beautiful, witty and so on. Of course it does not mean that you are any of those things, rather than as the star of your own show, that’s the role one is apt to cast oneself in, at first.
No stranger to depression, did Foster Wallace, like me, kick that persona to one side on a regular basis when the shadow self strutted centre stage. Did he, like me, shrink to the sidelines to watch the world float by, the water, whilst he gulped for air and clung to some mental piece of driftwood each minute, hour, day…
What scares me is that Foster Wallace knew well that there was always more than one way to see the world, and a myriad of interpretations for the self in it. He described in This is Water how to do those cerebral backflips that I do every day: the rigorous workout of the pre-frontal cortex, endlessly seeking alternatives as the meaning of any and every particular reality that will not suck my marrow. What he could not do, it seems, is survive the great weight of feelings that eventually dragged him down. All those headfuck acrobatics could not ultimately escape the gravity of mental pain, which is actually physical, and beyond all other things immeasurably tedious.
So my own prescription is this: choose your thoughts wisely, but feel the pain at least a little every day – and, sadly, some days a lot. There is no real escape. The ultimate avoidance of what seems infinite pain is allowing the shadow self centre stage just a moment long enough to enact a brutal amplification and a passing on to others. It is, as Karen Green, David Foster Wallace’s widow said, always a mistake.
Let the feelings drip, drip, drip. Take the antidotes where one can. For what else can we do? After all, This Truly is Water and This is all there is.