This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life

David Foster Wallace committed suicide last September, a grim reality that unavoidably colors This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life, a commencement address he gave at Kenyon College in 2005. This slim publication -- its 134 pages often contain one sentence -- warns of the dangerous, unhappy depressions of self-absorption and says "learning how to think," that old liberal arts mantra, "really means learning how to exercise some control over how andwhat you think." Every life experience casts us in the lead role, and that default setting is our greatest obstacle, Wallace says. "Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don't make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I'm gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to food shop, because my natural default setting is that situations like this are really all about me." To combat this attitude, we must be mindful and vigilant. "It means being aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed." In short, don't sweat the small stuff, because, well, most of it is small stuff. Clinical depression was not small stuff to David Foster Wallace. His suicide doesn't trivialize the advice in this brief, charming volume; but his advice doesn't help us understand his death, either.

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