College graduation season is winding down for another year, and at this point, whatever mylar “I heart my 2018 graduate” balloons haven’t sold are probably doomed.
I’m sure that many celebrities have tried hard to say inspiring things to graduates in folding chairs. I haven’t heard much about this year’s crop of speeches, but I did recently come across a commencement speech from 2005 given by the author David Foster Wallace, and it’s that speech that I want to excerpt for you today.
The setting is Kenyon College, a selective private liberal arts institution, which makes the subject of the section I quote a bit surprising:
“In the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your 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 grieve you.
“On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
“But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.”
I’m struck by his forecast of the course of worshipping money, beauty, power, and intellect, and it’s tempting to speculate about whether such worship explains a lot about some of the people making frequent news headlines.
I imagine there are other things we devolve into worshipping with similarly dismal results. I don’t think I’m primarily tempted by the trap of the big four, but I suspect that with some careful reflection, I could identify an idol or two that I have fashioned. The next question is how I progress from recognition to demolition.
The larger point Wallace makes in his speech focuses on “keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness,” but along the way he engages a variety of important ideas. I think the whole speech is worth your time. You can listen to it here, or read it here.
[Images: partycity.com, Wikipedia]