A birthday card & David Foster Wallace’s This is Water

bday card coverSaturday, I went to see the film, “The End of the Tour,” about David Lipsky’s interview of the author David Foster Wallace. Earlier that day, I received my first card for my birthday at the end of the month. The card exemplified what Wallace called the big “T” truth. 

I was unaware of who David Foster Wallace was. It turns out he wrote Infinite Jest, a 1,000+ page novel that has been lauded as one of the most significant novels of the 1990’s and even of that century. Upon its publication, Wallace was launched to instant fame.

The film is based on audiotaped interviews conducted by Lipsky–an author, himself, and writer for Rolling Stone. Lipsky flew to Wallace’s home in Bloomington, Illinois, where he taught at Illinois State University, and accompanied Wallace to the final stop of his book promotional tour in Minneapolis. Lipsky published a book that is essentially a transcription of those audiotapes. In the film, Jesse Eisenberg, of The Social Network fame, and Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) portray Lipsky and Wallace, respectively. Already, Segel is the subject of Oscar talk for Best Actor for his portrayal of Wallace.

Infinite Jest deals with addiction, depression, information overload, and the dissatisfaction experienced from striving for so much the culture dictates we aspire to, like achievement and entertainment. Wallace struggled with the first two, addiction and depression, ultimately overcoming the former through 12-step programs, but, ultimately being overcome by the latter, committing suicide in 2008 after going off his anti-depressants.

The film has prompted me to discover and delve deep into Wallace’s work and life. You see, I went to undergrad at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. I had long regretted that while aware of their music, I never went to see Uncle Tupelo, even though the band’s career coincided with my college years and they were based in southern Illinois. Similarly, ISU was just down I-74–indeed, I had gone to its library to do research in the summer of 1994–yet, I was ignorant of Wallace, even though he had published his first novel and many essays and articles before arriving at ISU in 1993.

Ironically, precisely what Wallace warned of in Infinite Jest–an onslaught of information delivered via the internet and media–is what has allowed this deep dive into his work. Thanks to the internet, you can find most of his magazine articles available for free and many videos of the author himself.

Including this one:

The video is of Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, which was later published posthumously under its title This is Water. It can also be read at this link.

In it, Wallace dispenses with the usual tropes of commencement addresses, e.g. follow your dreams, make a difference. Instead, he challenges the students with the challenge we all have of living in this world. Because everything we experience is through the lens of how we experience it, we too often can believe that everything centers around us.

Wallace gives an exquisite example of the everyday worries working people experience of simply going to the grocery after a long day at work to illustrate how often we can perceive anyone moving slowly or inconveniencing us as a personal affront due to our self-centered view of the world. Instead, Wallace challenges the graduating students to consider others for a change, and appreciate that someone moving slowly may be tired from staying up caring for an ailing parent or the other who is annoying them may be dealing with a far more serious problem than just the stress of the workday.

The example illustrated what others have said about Wallace’s work and what he has said was the purpose of his work. Others have said that reading Wallace is like reading how a mind actually thinks. Wallace said that he wrote so that others may not feel alone. Because I too often have thought the same frustrations for the exact self-centered reasons in the grocery store example, I both understood why his work expressed how a mind thinks and knowing that he expressed it, I didn’t feel alone in having those thoughts.

Wallace gives the grocery example as a lead in to the big “T” truth of what true freedom is in this world. (Spoiler alert: I’m going to reveal that so please go watch the video or read the address now if you intend to. I’ll continue this after the image of the birthday card I received to serve as a visual break so you don’t scroll down and see the big “T” truth if you want to hear or read it from Wallace himself.)

Bday card 2015

Photo of card from Brian Graeser

Continuing on through the commencement address, Wallace explains that religious or not, we all worship something. And, in this culture, this worship can often be of power or intelligence. But he warns that if you worship power, it will only leave you aware of how weak you are; worship intelligence and you’ll learn there is always someone smarter, leaving you aware of how unintelligent you are. And so on (to use one of Wallace’s common phrases).

How then to escape this cycle? This cycle of desire only to be left disappointed upon either attaining what you desired or realizing it can never be attained?

Wallace’s prescription is to move from being so self-centered to being other-centered, centered on caring for others, sacrificing for others. As Wallace puts it:

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. That is real freedom.[*]

In the film, this is the conclusion of Wallace’s final extended exchange with Lipsky before Lipsky leaves the next morning to return to New York.

The wisdom expressed by Wallace can be found in world religions and elsewhere. In the Buddhist belief that life is suffering because of desire and the only way to break this cycle of desire and suffering is through the eight-fold path of right action and right intention. In the teachings of Jesus Christ, who succinctly said “it is better to give than to receive.” In the bioethics theory of the ” care ethics,” of determining what ought to be done based on how you should care for someone. Even in the basic pop culture of the Beatles singing that “in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make” (which was confirmed by Paul McCartney in his interview by Chris Farley).

But the fact that Wallace’s conclusion is echoed by wisdom teachings millennia-old or just decades-old does not undermine it being the big “T” truth–just the opposite, it would seem that this idea having been expressed for 1,000’s of years may just be the big “T” truth.

One that was certainly demonstrated by my friend Brian.

Brian Graeser lives in Louisville and is a member of Down Syndrome of Louisville (DSL). He is DSL’s resident photographer. If you attend DSL’s annual celebrity golf tournament and live auction or its annual meeting or its annual community walk (held every year on the first Saturday of October), you will see Brian with a digital SLR camera slung about his neck snapping shots throughout the event. I enjoy catching up with Brian at these events and whenever we see each other out in the community (we live in the same part of town and cross paths on a semi-regular basis).

Brian also happens to have Down syndrome. His parents were involved in the establishment of DSL. His mom serves on the DSL board of directors, and did so when I served as board president. His father and I now serve on the board for DSL’s foundation. At one of these meetings, his mom said that Brian would like my address because he wanted to mail me something. And ever since, annually, I receive a thoughtful birthday card from Brian–this year his was the first I received.

Brian is practicing the wisdom of the ages expressed by Wallace. He is thinking about others. Note the craftsmanship of the card. Unlike many cards I give to those who I regularly tell them that I love them, but simply sign my name at the bottom of the card, Brian has personalized this card. He made a selection out of the multitude of cards to pick the one pictured above as the one he wanted to send; he decorated it with stamps of birthday symbols; he printed out and taped to the inside a photo from this year’s annual meeting that he took of DSL’s current board president and myself; and, best of all, he wrote a very sweet note, signing it “Love, Brian G.”

Now, and admittedly this may be a shoehorn of a segue into the purpose of this blog, but receiving Brian’s card in conjunction with delving into Wallace’s work made me think of all the arguments made by the supposedly intelligent and powerful academics, economists, and bioethicists about lives with Down syndrome. How they argue what is the “moral thing” to do after receiving a prenatal test result and how basic economics demonstrate how it is better for all the world to widely fund prenatal testing programs as public health measures so fewer and fewer individuals with Down syndrome are with us in this world.

To me, these individuals, by their positions and actions, are not following the big “T” truth of this world; they are following the big “L” lie: that intelligence is paramount, that we are only of value depending on how much we produce or how much we cost in medical care. Their arguments do not make for a better or even richer world. They deprive the world of the opportunities to not only profoundly love another, but to be profoundly loved by that other person.

Instead of looking upon others as a burden, a cost, or suffering to be avoided, let us instead look upon each other and think “how can we care for each other better?”


* Wallace was well known for his use of extensive footnotes and endnotes, so it seems appropriate to use one in this post. It is facile to think of Wallace as hypocritical given that he espoused the wisdom of caring for others but ended up committing suicide, an act roundly considered one of the most selfish ones that a person can make. But, Wallace gave a perspective on suicide that is worth appreciating. In the film, he talks of how people look in confusion as they see others leap to their death from a burning building, wondering why they would do such a thing. What Wallace wants the viewer to consider is what must it be like in the burning building that makes death seem the better option. The suicide of Robin Williams in 2014 made me have this appreciation of how powerful a curse depression can be on a person. If someone who seemed so joyful and relished bringing joy in others, one who had more than adequate means to get the best of care and had access to robust support networks of family and friends, could still believe no longer living was better than living, then unless you’ve wrestled with deep depression, you can’t really appreciate how bad a fire it is in that building they are leaping from. Eerily, Wallace killed himself on September 12, 2008, seven years and a day after so many of us actually saw images of people leaping to their deaths as the Twin Towers burned. And, eerily still, the day I first learned of Wallace by going to see “The End of the Tour”? September 12, 2015, seven years after Wallace’s suicide to the day.


  1. Marsha Michie says:

    Mark, what a lovely and insightful meditation on the “big T” truths and how people with so-called disabilities often “get it” while supposedly smart folks like us are distracted by other stuff. I have been thinking a lot about passion and purpose lately–and now, having read Wallace’s “This Is Water” commencement speech on your recommendation, I have yet another noodge from the universe about what’s really important. Thanks, my friend.

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