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On Freedom, Water, and David Foster Wallace.

My second year of graduate school sucked.  I was pressed and stressed on all sides.  Some days (and by some, I mean many) I was a mess.   My husband still refers to this period in our history as “The Dark Times.”  (And we’ve lived some life and seen our share of storm clouds, so this says something.)   

In an attempt to try to keep from drowning, I worked to get ahead on second semester reading over my holiday break before starting the spring term in January. Part of my saving grace that year was a professor and mentor who shaped and supported me in ways that transformed the clinician and person I was becoming in the crucible of my training.  Dr. Viola loved David Foster Wallace.  He had assigned to us as part of our spring semester readings the transcription of the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address delivered by David.  I still remember sinking into a couch at my in-law’s Colorado cabin, soaking in like a sponge the words that have come together to create the literary art that is “This Is Water.”

David Foster Wallace spoke these words to a group of graduates fifteen years ago:

“. . .there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving….

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.”

These stanzas landed deep in my consciousness and resonated with me as a stressed out student. I was working to maintain perspective as I forged ahead in pursuit of a dream.  Last night, as I sat scrolling through my Twitter feed the speech shot straight to the surface of my conscious awareness.  I hadn’t thought about it for a long time.  My attention was hooked by a question about a favorite graduation address. The answer was obvious in my book. When I read the speech as a student, the words had been seared and sealed somewhere in my heart—perhaps to surface for such a time as this. 

My mind then did what it often does.  It handed me a twist cone swirled high with interwoven thoughts, associations, feelings, and connections.

Freedom. The country is starting to reopen. People have felt the sometimes suffocating constraints of quarantine. There is now loud chatter and buzz about next steps.  Decision making in the days, weeks, and months ahead regarding risk and cost/benefit analysis will in many cases be more individual than collective.  People have strong opinions.  Where there are strong opinions, there is disagreement and dissent.  Where there is disagreement and dissent, there can be judgment that gives way to painful cruel, criticism.  Now more than ever, we need to – as DFW described – “truly care” about one another.  Not just in word but in deed. We must continue to make sacrifices for the collective good.

Graduations. There is a country of students who are crossing the finish line of degree completion this week and next.  This incredible milestone has been stripped of pomp and circumstance for many. A Zoom graduation was not how they envisioned crossing the finish line.  It may seem a bit anticlimactic after years of Ramen and excessive caffeine consumption in the service of struggling to actualize a lifelong goal.   

I don’t remember what I said when I spoke at my commencement at age eighteen.  I doubt my classmates do either. I do know how it felt to stand at the podium in a crowded gymnasium, listening to the squeak of chairs on the polished wooden floor. My heart swelled with excitement and relief. I beamed with pride. I remember the smell that is the distinct scent of a high school gym. The temporal lobe of my brain can bring back the sensation of the cool May midwest air hitting my skin when I left the stuffy school building and stepped outside in my silver gown and square hat. The experience meant a lot to me.  I had been looking forward to the day for a very, very long time.

I imagine how the Kenyon College graduating class of 2005 felt listening to David Foster Wallace’s voice carry across loud speakers:  completely inspired. Instead of crossing a stage, 2020 graduates are stepping into a world of uncertainty. Socially-distanced graduations will be special and unforgettable in their own way, but I still can’t help but feel sad for the somethings that are lost for this class.

My anniversary. Today marked thirteen years of marriage to my better half.  My lobster. In the span 156 months we have lived some incredible, wild, hard, beautiful life.  Time in eighteen countries.  Two wars.  Three deployments.  Five graduate degrees.  Seven homes.  Two beautiful babies.  Nightmares.  Dreams.  Loss. Hope. Tears. Terror. Joy.  Celebration. Hardship. Love. Laughter.  And so much sacrifice.  (My poor husband drove a car with a duct taped license plate for a period of time to help bankroll my education. True story.) I don’t dole out advice, but I will say this:  it served me to “marry up.”  I’ll argue that’s what I did until the day I die. As it turns out, if both parties in a relationship are convinced that they are the one “reaching” in the pair, it bodes well for their future.  He makes me want to be better.

I’ve come to understand something important about relationship math. It’s not 50/50.  It’s 100/100.   Philip and I talked about this idea during our premarital counseling. And then we discovered the power of living it. Together, you become unstoppable when you can trust that the person next to you would, without hesitation, give everything of theirs to further your success. After more than a decade of dirty dishes and scrubbing the stovetop, I can attest that thriving relationships are built on what Wallace describes so well:  “repeated acts of selfless unsexy sacrifice.”

May 2020 is Mental Health Awareness Month.   David Foster Wallace committed suicide in September  of 2008.  He was 46.  Mental illness can be lethal.  Wallace’s story is proof positive that psychological struggles do not discriminate or differentiate based on talent, achievement, potential, or success measured by the outside world. How many amazing books have we never had the opportunity to read because this incredibly gifted man was gruesomely strangled by a longstanding battle with depression?

The reminders and insight in Wallace’s address were what my psyche needed in December 2011.  Little could I have realized as they sat atop of a pile (wall?) of a sickening number of journal articles just how timeless they would turn out to be. 

We all have choice.  Each day.  We have agency.  We have tremendous opportunity. To give.  To love.  To change.  To grow.  To serve. To contribute.

Some days it may seem as though much has been taken from you, but no one can ever fully revoke your freedom to choose.  Choose how you are going to show up.  How you are going to speak.  Where you are going to shift your attention. Be selective, strategic, and intentional about where you cast your focus.   The waters of hope, possibility, and service are pretty friendly places to chart course, even amidst uncertainty. 

It is time–like never before-–for all of us to care.  To care deep, big, and wide.  This requires showing up. Over and over. In the small ways.  The unsexy ways.  Stripped of pretense.  Free of selfish motivation.  Expecting nothing back.  It requires us to throw all of the best of who we are and what we have fully behind people we love and people we have never met. People who are in our circles and those who look, think, and choose very different than we do. 

This is our time.


May 19, 2020

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