David Foster Wallace on Freedom

May 17, 2009

Graduation Speech Season is upon us, which may be my favorite season in American cultural life.  A whole army of amateur and not-so-amateur speakers takes the stage with the explicit task of helping to unleash the next generation of dreamers and doers. Unexpected magic can happen. And even when it doesn’t, we are still focused briefly on the challenge of our collective salvation.  

I want to honor the season’s start with David Foster Wallace’s advice to last year’s graduating class at Kenyon College in Ohio (thank you, Lyn). Wallace finally lost his life-long fight with depression last year, a tragedy on many levels. He may have been the most talented writer of his generation and probably many others.

I’m including a full version of the speech, which the Guardian edited, along with a preview:

…there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the “rat race” – the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.