My youngest child graduates from high school next month, and on the most remarkable field trip I’ve ever heard of, his school – along with 10,000 other people – went to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Eugene, Oregon. When I eagerly asked what the Dalai Lama had to say, my 18-year-old offspring answered, “A bunch of monk stuff. I’ve heard it before.”
Son, your mom has heard a bunch of monk stuff before, and she has to re-learn it every day. And your mom’s understanding of her own education is very different than it was at 18.
I’m currently reading the great big book, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. By coincidence (a.k.a. Twitter) I came across an excerpt of Wallace’s commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005.
Here are some of my favorite sections of his speech. This reminds me to re-learn something important, and to reflect on David Foster Wallace’s own bunch of monk stuff.
“As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master…
And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation…
The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing…
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
…the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:
“This is water.”
“This is water.”
It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime.”