Anyone who has spent any amount of time with me knows that there are few things I really, perhaps obsessively (and definitely obnoxiously) love: my mom, my alma mater and words.
Studying Ancient Latin and Greek at Kenyon College very conveniently allowed me to experience and enjoy all of those things in one place (except I guess technically speaking my mom, though she made the drive down frequently enough that we’ll let it slide). And studying at Kenyon also introduced me to what I now consider one of the most powerful series of words ever to have been strung together. A speech that my mom, Candy Cowper, embodies and inspires me to live by each and every day—David Foster Wallace (DFW)’s now-famous Commencement address to Kenyon’s 2005 graduating class: This is Water.
Make no mistake: I’m not writing this to offer up any sort of literary explication or ‘best practices on how to live a most fulfilling life’. I am no expert in either of those areas, nor will I pretend to be. Instead—I suppose in the spirit of the holidays—I’d like to simply take a moment to express my gratitude for a remarkable piece of work and, if I can find the right words, share with you how exactly that work has inspired me to (try my hardest to) live a more compassionate life.
Attending a small liberal arts school in the middle of Ohio was a lot of things: charming, insightful, weird. It was also—I found out the hard way—a bubble. I learned how to translate dead languages and solve infinite mathematical sets and, more important than anything else, I learned, as DFW puts it, “how to think.” But I did not learn (or at least understand) what it means to experience ‘adulthood.’ I had no idea what “day in, day out” could possibly mean. Not until I very harshly and unexpectedly experienced it myself.
And this is the trouble. So many of us—likely almost all of you kind souls that are taking the time to read this post—live our adult lives “day in, day out.” We wake up, we do work, we go home. Maybe we throw in a workout, a drink with friends, some family time, a trip to Trader Joe’s—something like that to spice it up. And we cycle through some combination of these things each and every day.
We keep our heads down, go through the motions and, so often, we get stuck. Everything seems to take on that same tinge of dullness, and everyone else seems to be dead-set on inconveniencing you, making your life just a little bit harder. Adulthood is not glamorous.
It’s not that we want to be boring or unhappy or negative day in, day out—it’s just that it’s so easy to slip into that rut. As DFW describes it: “everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.” How can we be expected to think about people outside of ourselves—to be compassionate—when we’ve got so much of our own sh*t to worry about?
But what DFW so aptly and eloquently explains in This is Water is that, although we sometimes don’t realize or we simply forget, we all have a choice. We get to decide what has meaning, what motivates us. We have the great power to pick our heads up, look around and determine what is important and what we want to contribute to this world and those in it. No matter what situation we happen to find ourselves in.
I’ve been tremendously fortunate in that I’ve been surrounded by good, kind, supportive people all my life. My mom taught me to “kill people with kindness” and illuminated for me the important truth that “some days you get the bear and some days the bear gets you,” but that, no matter what sort of day it is, we’ve got to accept it and persevere.
Working with my amazing colleagues at Glen Echo Group has taught me that you can find family anywhere and that you can create purpose and help others in anything you do, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. Just this year my Glen Echo Group family encouraged and supported me in building out the Glen Echo Gives initiative, our community outreach and giving arm through which we support the people, organizations and causes that mean the most to us in whatever way we feel is most effective, whether that be volunteering, fundraising, donating our services or something else entirely. In just 2019 we've supported incredible organizations like Communities in Schools in the Nation’s Capital, the Capital Area Food Bank, the International Rescue Committee, Raising Raiders, Comfort Cases, the Mary's Court Foundation and The Last Mile in a multitude of ways.
Ultimately, what it comes down to, and what DFW's powerful words make abundantly clear, is that we can't always control what happens to or around us. And that being an adult, or really just a human, can be hard and dull and sometimes a total drag.
But! We alone have the power to actively choose how to think and feel about it, and we can look beyond our own immediate spheres to recognize those around us and show them kindness and compassion, even—and maybe especially—when we ourselves are struggling.
Because, and I will let DFW say it in his own words: ”the really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”
Note: This article originally appeared on Medium.