Default Settings: Words of Wisdom from David Foster Wallace

Author David Foster Wallace spoke at the 2005 graduation ceremony for Kenyon College. His message was directed at students who were about to venture into the world as independent, functional humans but his message on thinking is important for everyone to hear even ten years later. In our current global state, perhaps it’s time to relearn how to think.

“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.

We rarely talk about this sort of natural basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive but it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you were not at the absolute center of.

The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU. Or behind YOU.
To the left or right of YOU on YOUR tv or YOUR monitor and so on.
Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”

Wallace encouraged those listening to consider beyond what was right in front of them. He asked them to think beyond their standard filters. How does this effect ME? Is this important to ME? We all do it. Without intention motivating us, we can switch into our default of gauging every experience by how it effects “me” and while that sounds beneficial, it usually leads to a pretty miserable existence. If something doesn’t benefit ME, it’s bad and, unfortunately, you are usually the only person putting YOU at the center of the universe. The opportunities to be frustrated, to miss out on connection and joy and grace are so much greater when the world is all about ME.

“The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is going to come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long check out lines give me time to think and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m going to be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About my hungryness and my fatigue and my desire to just get home and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way and who are all these people in my way and look at how repulsive most of them are and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and non-human they seem in the check-out line… 

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important, if you wanna operate on your default settings then, you like me probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer hell type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars. Love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

There’s an alternative to all this ME talk. You can instead choose to notice. You can choose empathy. You can choose to think about the world and all the miserable and frustrating and wonderful things in it as a whole. You can become a person who doesn’t see others as speed bumps. You could be someone who reads about the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees seeking safety and when your government offers to harbor only 50, you and 10,000 of your fellow Icelandic citizens could offer up your homes. You could also be the parent, biological or appointed, who is present everyday for the cute things but also the hard things, the sick days and the bad attitude days, who goes to work and comes home and drives to soccer practice and makes dinner and does it all again. You could be a person who chooses to see themselves in the midst of a whole bustling existence and embrace it all instead of choosing to shut it out because it doesn’t agree with ME.

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline 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.


So what will you choose?