Book Review – David Foster Wallace – This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life

January 9, 2016

I first discovered David Foster Wallace as a young Literature student at University of Sussex. Back then, I was too immature to really appreciate him, finding some of his essays fairly abstract and hard to interpret. Having read This Is Water, I feel I might have missed out on a lot of his work and art, but more tragically, the starkly human reminders contained within.

This Is Water is a super short read, primarily owing to the fact that it wasn’t really an intended read at all, but rather a commencement speech, given by Wallace, at Kenyon College in 2005 (three years before his suicide death).

What Wallace touches on is hinted at in the works full title: This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. In short, at least the way I see it, it’s about three things; awareness, compassion and truth. Three things that I feel are so essential but rarely touched upon in pivotal moments in our life.

That’s why I feel Wallace was brave talking about these things to a group of graduating art students. It’s the kind of talk I wish I’d had when I left University and suddenly had to cope with the overbearing realisation of not having an institution behind me to cope with the world.

Wallace skilfully addresses and excuses himself from being seen as some kind of ‘guru’ or truth-spreader from the start. When he says that “everything in my own immediate experience supports by deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence”, it’s something we all relate to in terms of consciousness and awareness.

It also allows us to hear him out without feeling like we’re being lectured to by some self-gratified authority figure.

So when Wallace touches on consciousness, and gives us myriad examples of the ways in which we’re challenged daily by it through the grind of mundane existence, we learn an invaluable lesson. That we are in control, somewhat, of what we give our attention to.

“Learning how to think” really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.”

And this is then marked by him venturing into religion and worship. Where the main theme of the This is Water really comes across.
“The only choice we get is what to worship.

And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship – be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess of the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

…Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.”

It is with this example that This is Water really gripped me, making me conscious of what I was letting my mind be occupied by and therefore showed compassion toward.

Because, as the book suggests, the most important things we’re never taught are often those that come intuitively to us as humans but that we do best to ignore.

“It is about the real value of a real education, which has nothing to do with grades or degrees and everything to do with simple awareness…

The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

Check out This is Water, delivered in its first real incarnation, on YouTube. It’s definitely worth the twenty-plus minutes.