Sunday, May 12, 2013

"This is Water" and attempting to relocate out of the center of the universe

If you haven't seen it floating around the interwebs yet, please watch "This is Water" the commencement address late novelist David Foster Wallace delivered to Kenyon College in 2005. Chances are, you've probably already seen it, as I am perpetually behind hip interweb happenings. But if you are like me, here it is:

You can read the unabridged version, too. I wish I had heard this or read this after I graduated. I can't even remember who delivered the commencement address when I graduated from Penn State nine years ago*. 

Anyway, my 22-year-old self would've benefitted mightly from a reminder that I was, in fact, not the center of the universe. That I wasn't some glowing paradigm of success, education and wisdom just because I had a diploma. That my youth and education weren't evidence of my superiority. That I wasn't any more deserving of exemption from the annoyances of day-to-day existence than anyone else.

Of course, given my 22-year-old self's self-centerdness, I probably wouldn't have heard the message. Or maybe I wouldn't have thought it could ever apply to me. Wallace says it's critical that we transcend our natural state of self-centeredness, that we make an active choice not to get stuck in the mud of our own ego
"If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important - if you want to operate on your default setting - then you, like me, will not consider possibilities that aren't pointless and annoying. But if you've really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars - compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff's necessarily true: the only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship."
Yes. YES! 

He's not saying anything new, really. We can't control what happens, but we can control how we react to it. But Wallace's interpretation is clothed in this wonderful and relatable imagery of our everyday drudgery -- it's a message that we can hear because we've all been in that grocery store. 

Life is full of ongoing conversations. This video seemed to be the next installment in a conversation I've been having one with myself and with others on breathing and acceptance and humanity

In fact, just the other day I was on the phone with my sister Laura discussing empathy and how hard it is to practice with everyone you meet and how it can be even harder to practice with the ones closest to you. We decided that we'd known we'd reached a higher plane of empathy when we could bestow the gift on our husbands -- our nearest and dearest who frequently fall victim to our unwillingness to transcend our day-to-day petty ugliness. 

But like Wallace says it takes practice.** Breaking the habit of judgement and assumption about others*** may be a life's work. But a worthwhile one, I think.

I suppose given the calamity of the world, that it's pretty indulgent of a stay-at-home mom in one of the wealthiest countries on the planet fret over how people can be nicer to one another. Or more patient or understanding or whatever. It seems an oversimplification of a problem that's plagued humans since the beginning of it all. 

I'm a self-centered being afterall, so I don't write anything without a huge amount of self-conscious. 

 But then I re-read what Wallace had to say: 
"...The most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude - but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance."

* I think it was the CEO from Pepsi -- the only reason I think that is because Penn State had some sort of contract with Pepsi so that only Pepsi products were available on campus -- including, in this case, commencement speakers. 

** Not to keep bringing up yoga -- but I think it applies. My instructor says frequently that the great thing about practicing yoga is that there's always room for improvement, always something new you can do to better yourself. In that way, there's never a point when you're done -- when the work is complete. When all that practice results in your best self. I think it's hard for us, aware as we are of our own mortality, to look at life as practice. It's the only one we have -- this is it! But when you're looking at becoming more than you are today, I think the word practice is approachable and doable. Every day doesn't have to be winning the game. Every day can be about improving our technique, and in that way it's something we can all do without fatigue or exhaustion or fear of failure.

***So, I've been trying to practice empathy while driving. I make a lot of assumptions about people when they cut me off or drive too slow or take up three parking spaces with their brontosaurus-sized SUVs. But I don't know. So when I find myself starting to yell, I also remind myself of my own driving ineptitude. A few weeks back I was driving near dusk and I was waiting for a light to change when some kid shouted at me from the backseat of his car "Turn your lights on asshole!" (actually, I couldn't hear him, but the sentiment wasn't too hard to lipread). The kid was too young to know about driving laws, so I'm assuming he was just repeating whatever it was the driver had just uttered. I don't think of myself as an asshole (an at-times absent-minded driver? Yes). It kind of sucked that based on just his driving by my car this person had formed an opinion about me. I'm trying not to pass on that suckitude to others. It's taken a lot of practice.

P.S.***** Happy Mother's Day, mom. You were first and best role model for how to treat others with compassion.

*****Wait can you have asterisks and a P.S.? Isn't that tangent overkill?! 

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