Sunday Night Speech: “This is Water,” by David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace

Tonight, rather than link to a video, we’ve chosen to link to an audio file of “This is Water,” a fairly well known commencement speech by the late David Foster Wallace. Wallace gave the speech at Ohio’s Kenyon College in 2005, and since that time it has come to represent the clearest, most direct example of its author’s guiding philosophy. I love this speech, and for the last three years, I’ve read it to my students at the end of each school year, hoping that they might absorb even a fraction of its painful truths and consider those truths as they wind along towards the end of one phase of their lives and turn their focus to the start of another. Rather than prattle on about it any longer, I asked one of my (now former) students to say a little about why and how this speech affected him. He graciously agreed.

– Josh Corman

On the 21st of May in 2005, David Foster Wallace gave a rather nontraditional commencement speech at the graduation ceremony of Kenyon College.  As opposed to the clichés, “Life will be tough, but if you work real hard at it nothing can get in your way!” or the “Your possibilities are endless!” quips often spoken to graduating classes, Wallace discusses a slightly more frank version of these ideals.  Usually, when we hear that something is frank, or realistic, we automatically assume that someone is simply using a euphemism for “pessimistic.” However, Wallace is actually rather encouraging.  He makes sure that even though he rants about the misery of adult life, he lets the graduates know that if they remain aware, use their education (and continue to develop it), and have “more than luck,” that they can still make a positive impact on the world while keeping a positive mindset.  As a high school student stuck quite literally with the same people every day, watching them hurt themselves, others, and me, it is extremely easy to assume that others are just bad people, poorly reared, insensitive, etc., even though there are millions of other factors to consider when reacting to others.  Wallace’s speech had a positive influence on my life because it spoke the truth, a truth we often write off as too much work despite its rewarding spoils.  Life can get discouraging, but if I choose to see the best in others, to see that the worst may not be their fault, to see the glass full, to learn from the painful past, and to see the future as big, bright, full, and even maybe happy, that I can change the world for the better, and maybe keep my sanity and reputation while doing so.  I hope you enjoy this wonderful piece of aural art as much as I have. 

P.S. It’s better to listen to it, so go find some poor fool to read the six page speech to you.

– Hayden McNeal

Our thanks to Hayden for taking time out of his summer vacation to complete yet another assignment for a teacher who no longer has any control over his scholastic career. I promise that I didn’t bribe him with the promise of a recommendation letter.

Last of all, “This is Water” has been released as a book, in which each of the speech’s lines has one page devoted to it. If you enjoy the speech, please consider purchasing the book here.

Thanks for reading (and listening), everyone.

CLICK HERE for the transcript.

Audio of the Speech, Part 1

Audio of the Speech, Part 2

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Categories: Sunday Night Speech

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