You may have seen the viral short video made to accompany the commencement speech given by the very talented late David Foster Wallace in 2005 at Kenyon College. (If Googling this speech, be aware that it has been removed from many sites due to copyright issues and may now be hard to find).
In his speech, Wallace describes a higher education graduate, now working at a challenging job in a large city, who is now officially a part of the rat race, whose principal challenge is not so much the exhaustion of a demanding job, but the tedium of daily existence.
(I’ll qualify here by inserting that I live in a very small town and am a homeschooling stay-at-home mom of three young children, so my daily struggles with finding meaning in tedium look different than those described in Foster’s speech; but nevertheless, I can relate to the frustration of monotony and seemingly small, though necessary, tasks.)
In the slow and maddening check-out line at the store after a long day of work, our graduate is surrounded by overwhelmingly annoying people talking loudly on cell phones, staring into space, screaming at their kids. The way to wake up and arrive at a better existence, Wallace tells us, is just this: to reject our “natural default setting” that the whole world and everything that happens is about us, that we are the center of the world.
We should realize, he says, that many of the people around us have much more difficult existences than our own. And we shouldn’t think so badly of the lady who just yelled at her kid, because maybe she isn’t usually like this. Maybe she’s exhausted from caring for her husband who is dying of cancer.
But what if she isn’t?
Wallace advises us to create a fictitious backstory for each person in each obnoxious encounter to make a way to maintain our own inner peace. But do we need to concoct a tragic story about this woman to see her as more than a bloated pile of talking meat blocking our way to the cashier and the exit?
Apart from whatever challenges or heartbreaks in her life have led her to become the person causing our blood pressure to rise just by standing next to her, we should strive to have grace towards her because we know deep down that she is created and loved by the One who created and loves us all.
Foster’s existentialist claim is that “The only thing that’s capital T true is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it…. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. That is real freedom.” What is really true doesn’t have to do with “fancy questions about life after death” or religion or dogma or morality, he says, but about life before death.
Thinking of this desperate attempt to make it through life without despair or hatred toward those we encounter saddens me deep in my soul (I once battled to make it work myself), and is the antithesis of the Christ-follower’s belief that all of life leads to a glorious eternal after-life, and that the trials in our lives are not nuisances or obstacles interfering with our enjoyment of the only short existence we have, but opportunities to hope in the glory of God.
…we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (Romans 5:4)
So then, we have a beautiful hope. Our trials, including those dealing with how we think of those around us, are open doors in which God will even give us joy, as we become more complete in our journey toward godliness and eternal peace.
One of the closing thoughts of the speech is this:
By choosing how we think, we can overcome “the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”
But with hope and thanksgiving I cling to this Truth with a capital T, that we have been given the gift of the only infinite thing, the only Good thing….not just out of grasp or something of dreams, but eternal life, forgiveness, peace.
That gnawing sense of some greater meaning, some greater peace, I believe it is this.
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:9-11)