David Foster Wallace: “This Is Water”

Three years before taking his own life, David Foster Wallace delivered this brilliant commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005. Wallace was an author, a professor, a lover of dogs, a husband and a son… This is the part where words utterly fail to capture his life, his spirit and his legacy — suffice to say, he is sorely missed. This speech was published (in 2009) in book form under the title: “This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.” Wallace’s spirit lives on through this speech as well as his other works like “Infinite Jest” — and he has had a tremendous positive impact on my life as well as the lives of countless others.

Maria Popova originally uploaded this sound; she is brilliant. For more of her work check out brainpicker on SoundCloud as well as brainpickings.org

This is not the end… 

“They say it’s the last song. They don’t know us, you see. It’s only the last song if we let it be.” – Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Love Conquers All

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV)

There are those who believe The Bible is “God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16)” — written both by God Himself and Divinely inspired humans like Moses, the apostle Paul, and Luke the evangelist. Still others find the idea of a “magic book” authored by the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent Creator of life, the universe, and everything laughable. Regardless, only a fool would deny its impact (for better and for worse). The Bible is, after all, the most widely printed and distributed book of all-time. And — fortunately for those wondering: “What Is Love?” — it contains some moving passages on the subject.

In his first letter to the Corinthians — specifically, 1 Corinthians 13 (NIV) — the apostle Paul writes The Way of Love:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

 “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able to truly care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.” — David Foster Wallace, This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life

In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke writes:

For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of all our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation.

In Me: Stories of My Life, Katharine Hepburn writes: “Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get — only with what you are expecting to give — which is everything.” Echoing the thoughts of Wallace, Rilke, and Hepburn, Susan Sontag writes (on February 12, 1970) in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964–1980: “Being in love means being willing to ruin yourself for the other person.”

 “Have you ever been in love? Horrible isn’t it? It makes you so vulnerable. It opens your chest and it opens up your heart and it means that someone can get inside you and mess you up.” — Neil Gaiman, Sandman Vol. 9: The Kindly Ones

In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis writes:

There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.

“Where the myth fails, human love begins. Then we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws.” — Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 3: 1939–1944

In The Wise Man’s Fear: The Kingkiller Chronicle: Day Two, Patrick Rothfuss writes:

It had flaws, but what does that matter when it comes to matters of the heart? We love what we love. Reason does not enter into it. In many ways, unwise love is the truest love. Anyone can love a thing because. That’s as easy as putting a penny in your pocket. But to love something despite. To know the flaws and love them too. That is rare and pure and perfect.

“I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity, and her flaming self respect. It’s these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be… I love her and that’s the beginning and end of everything.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald

Love is the Great Jay Gatsby losing himself in pursuit of Daisy, striving with every fibre of his being to become someone worthy of this hyper-romanticized vision. It’s living every second of every day for something other than yourself. It’s a beautiful, heartbreaking tragedy that makes life worth living. Love is not just the greatest reason of all. It’s the only reason. The only reason to do anything, ever.

 Postscript

“Omnia vincit amor (Love conquers all)” — Virgil, Eclogues X.69

Rembrandt van Rijn (c. 1661–1669) - 262 cm × 205 cm - Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg
Rembrandt van Rijn (c. 1661–1669) – 262 cm × 205 cm – Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

This is not the end…

“They say it’s the last song. They don’t know us, you see. It’s only the last song if we let it be.” – Dancer in the Dark (2000)