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December 19, 2017

The Perfect Gift: This Is Water

by Anne Paddock

David Foster Wallace – the author of Infinite Jest, The Pale King, and Consider the Lobster- was not known as a dispenser of advice but in 2005 when he gave the commencement address (a speech that is most often associated with giving recent grads one last dose of advice) at Kenyon College entitled This is Water, he nailed it.

Standing in front of an audience of 22-year olds and their proud families, Wallace didn’t tell the graduates to follow their passion or dreams; instead he told the audience how important it is to live a compassionate life where we consider the people around us instead of ourselves. The words make the pursuit of happiness seem so easy (just be considerate!) but when you really think about the daily processes that define our lives, it’s not so simple because we’re not hard-wired to think of anyone but ourselves most of the time.

In 2009 – a year after the author’s death – Little, Brown and Company published the speech in its entirety and aptly named the book: This Is Water (Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion about Living a Compassionate Life) for those not lucky enough to be in the audience on that Spring day in 2005.

The 137-page book (most pages have just a sentence or two) is a must read for any adult (not just a recent college grad) who needs to know or be reminded of the importance of what Wallace calls “simple awareness”- to remember what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over… – to live consciously day in and day out. And, to do this we have to be attentive and aware, rely on discipline and effort to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”

Instead of getting pissed off about the traffic, the driver that blocks the driveway, the long lines at the grocery store, the slow cashier, the indecisive person in front of you, and the unrelenting demands people make on your time day in and day out, the author advocates thinking of the myriad of reasons driving other people’s’ behavior. Consider for a moment that we may not know the extent of other people’s struggles. But, if we just step back for a moment and try to imagine that someone else deserves patience and empathy, then we ourselves become a more compassionate and less bitter person.

As much as Foster is known for his amazing sentence structure and command of the English language, the This Is Water speech is not considered one of Wallace’s greatest literary pieces and, yet his message is powerful. This Is Water can be read in 30 minutes but delivers a lifetime of really good advice from a writer who understood the real value of education is not the college, the degree, the grades, or the prospective job, but the lifelong process of practicing  compassion for others.

Available at bookstores nationwide.

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