Some folks have made this wonderful video using an audio recording of David Foster Wallace’s now famous commencement speech This Is Water:
Feel free to check out the entire speech.
Not long ago, I recall being frustrated at seemingly trivial things: traffic, delays, long lines, slow moving lines (or worse, being in a slow moving line next to a faster moving line.) I can’t quite put my finger on when I started changing but now it is rare for me to get frustrated. It comes down to how we think—or as Wallace puts it—how we choose to think.
Take an everyday example of being late to a meeting. We cut others in traffic, drive impatiently, hop into an elevator a few hundred milliseconds earlier, get annoyed when the folks getting out of the elevator don’t seem to share our urgency—all to save perhaps a few seconds or a minute. I don’t know about you but I have never once attended a meeting where my arriving a minute late would have had any impact whatsoever. Once that realization hits, you cannot be the same person.
As Wallace says, the constant bombardment of banalities in our everyday life is hard to escape. We can however do better. A few tricks work well for me in making a otherwise unhappy or neutral moment into one of fascination.
1. This one’s corny but take a moment to appreciate love. It’s all around you. Old couples, young couples, teenage couples, a dog and and her owner, a mother and daughter, a father and a son, a woman walking her new born.
I still find it immensely fascinating and awesome whenever a living being has love for another. I can’t think of anything that tops it in our experience of being alive.
(Sure, many seemingly loving relationships aren’t perfect and have problems of some sort. But you don’t have to think about that when appreciating love around you.)
2. Wallace touches upon this in his speech: Make up a story for every stranger you come across. Their actions will seem rational and your problems trivial. Take a waiter/waitress who messes up your order. If you know anything about the minimum wages for tipped employees, it should be easy to imagine a median life of a waiter or waitress who has to smile through their problems every day. There’s no fucking way you will ever again be annoyed when your order is late or a bit incorrect.
The old lady at the checkout counter of a grocery store, the lady driving a bit cautiously in her SUV, the young black girl working at a fast food chain: With just a tiny hint from their appearance or body language, you can make up the story of their life. And it doesn’t have to be Dickensian level of pathetic: a person living a normal life with a wife, two kids, a steady job and home in the suburb scares me enough to empathize for him.
No matter how good you are at the above, you will invariably come across assholes. I take the path that causes me the least unhappiness. My happiness is far too precious for a stranger to ruin it. In a weird way, you make him less of an asshole if he can’t make you unhappy. Make sense?