Each year, thousands of hopeful graduates count down the seconds until they receive their diplomas. Ubiquitous and customary, graduation commencement speeches are the last rhetorical stop on the road to adulthood. Delivered to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College in May of that year, renowned American writer and professor of English and creative writing, David Foster Wallace, is responsible for what has been called the greatest commencement speech of all time: “This is Water.” It has been featured in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2006 and in a book of the same name in 2009.

David Foster Wallace, Circa 1993

David Foster Wallace, Circa 1993

David Foster Wallace, A True Inspiration

Although Wallace tragically committed suicide in 2008, his death helped generate more widespread interest and awareness of his writing. “This is Water” is considered exceptional and inspirational because it not only defends and upholds the principles of a liberal arts education, it offers real-life advice for graduates that has more to do with the actual meaning of life than the monetary value a college degree can generate.

Wallace argues that compassion, empathy, and awareness for ourselves and others–the very backbone and purpose of a liberal arts education–must inform our responses to daily life. Only those qualities can counter our instinctive responses to life’s countless and often routinized irritations. These daily frustrations can sully our perceptions and actions and rob us of the compassion needed to be just and kind with others. Without them, we will default to our own natural narcissism and selfish tendencies. These tendencies hinder our ability to choose how we perceive others, interpret life, and act. The true freedom of education, Wallace asserts, is the ability to be well-adjusted, conscious, sympathetic, and compassionate.

Rather than being a naturally occurring virtue, though, Wallace frames compassion as a matter of choice and on-going work that will alter, or liberate, people from their automatic tendency to be self-centered and see things from their own perspective. The multiple, ever-growing stresses of life destroy our ability to interrogate, process, and react consciously and with sympathy, so it takes continuous effort to examine and negotiate life to maintain these these qualities. The routine, boring, monotonous parts of adult life like traffic and long hours of work, create a self-obsessed person who sees the world only from and through their perspective.

The ability to choose compassion results in people who are “well-adjusted.” Well-adjusted people are not born or created by accident, but rather created through conscious choice and action. Regularly exercising control over how and what you think has a real effect on the way you act, not only toward yourself, but others. The inability to make this kind of choice as an adult, Wallace contends, will be to our own individual and collective detriment.

While his words were meant as a bit of parting food for thought for recent college graduates, they undoubtedly have value for everyone who reads them. Enlightening and instructive, his words remain as timeless as they are universally important.