I love me a good commencement speech. This one by Mindy Kaling made me laugh out loud (that felt nice to write out) multiple times and this one by Conan had some awesome wisdom buried in a mountain of gut laughs. I even wrote an entire blog post years ago about my love for this version of a graduation speech, but this speech by author David Foster Wallace had a huge impact on me. There are so many great quotes in it that are so simple yet profound. Just please watch it, but here’s my favorite::
“Don’t worship false idols, they will consume you. Do your best to be kind. The world is what you make of it. Just because something is clichéd doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Clichés are accumulated human wisdom, and their being worn smooth from repeated use doesn’t mean you won’t be gauged by their accuracy.”
Choose your temple, Wallace said at Kenyon in May 2005. Worship something that won’t destroy you. As noted in this article about it from Kenyon College where the speech was given::
“Though the speech is unassuming, its wisdom seems hard-earned, implying there was a lot of pain in learning the lessons Wallace was trying to impart. The darkness in the speech is what gives it weight.
It was almost as though Wallace thought if we believed him enough, he might eventually believe what he was saying, too.”
Sadly, I don’t know if he did believe his own words. Wallace committed suicide in 2008, which is particularly sad to me because of the fact that Wallace seemed to be constantly contemplating happiness, peace, & how to achieve it–a concept I’m constantly contemplating myself.
I once heard on a podcast that Helen Schucman, the psychologist and professor who basically wrote the famous spiritual text, A Course in Miracles (she channeled it) never actually believed the words she wrote. This was heartbreaking to me. Perhaps because I’m working on writing a self-help book myself right now and I assumed on some level that by simply writing one it would mean that myself/ life would automatically be ‘helped’ from the information I share in it the book. It doesn’t work that way though, I still have to do the exercises in my book consistently to benefit even if I’m the one who made them up. I can intellectually understand the material but I still have to apply it if I want the benefit from it.
What’s fascinating to me about Wallace’s life and even more about his untimely death is that, as stated in this article, his work “tends to verge right on the border of self-help.” Like I said, we’ll never know if Wallace believed his own message but what I think is that he did understand the concepts and believe them but like Helen, and I, and many of us involved, interested, or like me immersed in personal development, he was unable to integrate his concepts fully in his own life.
I struggle with this too. I intellectually understand useful, psychological, or spiritual concepts and ideas from the countless self-help books I read but truly integrating the message and applying the theories in my daily life is a completely different animal all together that I have far from mastered. This makes me question all self-help authors and spiritual teachers, not for their validity (I know their concepts make sense) but for how they are actually able to fully apply their work in their lives. I think of the authors as people outside of their body of work and that is more inspiring to me now than their body of work ever will be.
The interesting thing is that I can trick myself into feeling like I’ve got it together by constantly distracting myself with spiritual or personal growth content. It’s easy to convince myself into thinking I’m actually living these concepts all the time when in reality I’m just consuming information all the time, but rarely living it.
It takes honesty and vulnerability to realize this and even more to blog about it but I suspect I’m not alone. I found, for me, personal growth work was just another way for me to distract myself from my feelings. I’m not knocking it, I still will read self-help books, I’m still writing one for gosh sakes, but I’m also reading fiction, making new friends, and working on other creative projects outside this realm–and that is truly helping myself.
So I’m taking a break from trying to better myself and just being, which makes me better by default. Self-development by nature states that something within me needs developing, but what if I don’t? What if the way I am right now was enough? What if I am good enough as I am? What if I am worthy of love, friendship, success just as I am without having to read another self-help book, write one, or hire another coach, teacher or mentor?
I’m trying that for a while. If you relate to my addiction, I suggest you eventually try it too. You might have to first hit a bottom with what you’re trying now.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Wallace that speaks to all of this perfectly & ties this all up in a bow better than I ever could.
“The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.”
– Infinite Jest (1996)
PS. If you’re fascinated by Wallace’s life and work like I am you might want to see the new movie, The End of The Tour out this summer about his life starring Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg. The movie is based on the book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, by Eisenberg’s character David Lipsky who followed Wallace on his book tour for Infinite Jest writing a piece on him for Rolling Stone which was never published in that magazine but later was released as a book. I’m psyched to see it and what intrigues me the most is that most of the dialog between Wallace and Lipsky is accurate based on what was recorded on Lipsky’s tape recorder during his road trip with Wallace.