My husband recently read Infinite Jest, and consequently, we have been talking a lot about David Foster Wallace. I have read a couple of his essays and listened more than once to his 2005 graduation talk at Kenyon College called “What is Water?,” which was enough to convince me he was a deep, deep thinker. In this graduation talk DFW spoke about our “default setting,” a principle that he espouses again and again in his writing. Essentially it means that we, as humans, are mostly focused on ourselves. This is not necessarily a bad thing as much as it is a sure thing. To examine or test this default setting, he asks us to think about a situation from the viewpoint of someone else.
Imagine, for example, you are standing at the grocery store deli counter, and you are next in line. A woman hurriedly approaches the counter and when the meat slicer (who is on her own default setting) asks who’s next, she blurts out that she needs a pound of American cheese. Your first thought might be to say, “Actually, I was next.” Your second thought might be to think that the woman is an inconsiderate jerk. What DFW would want you to do is wonder why she cut the line. Does she live with an ill-tempered husband who is demanding a grilled cheese sandwich or else? Is she on her way to her dying mother’s house, a mother whose failing digestive system can tolerate nothing but American cheese? What if, what if, what if? DFW acknowledges that probably none of these possibilities is true – but one of them could be. And if it is, for this woman, her jumping the line, while not excusable, might be a bit more understandable.
In 2016, I’d like to think a little more like David Foster Wallace and give the situations of those I meet, strangers and friends alike, an honest, switched-perspective assessment. And even if it turns out to be wrong – if the guy in the SUV who cuts me off on the highway is not on his way to the hospital to see his friend who has just been in a terrible car accident but is, instead, a self-absorbed fool – I’ll still have a wider view of the world and a closer relationship with compassion.
Happy New Year
(You can watch “What is Water” online. It’s worth the 22 minutes.)