Book Summaries Philosophy

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This is a graduation speech by David Foster Wallace that was made into a book. In this speech, Wallace relates to us to what we need to me aware of throughout our lives.

What to Think

The purpose of a liberal arts education is to teach you what to think about. It has nothing to do with accumulating knowledge. The power of an education is that you gain the ability to focus your attention to things that are important to you.

Wallace describes, in detail, the painful experience of daily life. The early alarm, the commute to the supermarket after work during peak traffic, the annoying strangers, and the petty frustrations in your relationships.

He reminds of us of the drudgery of life to make a point. That since that is what life is really like for most people, it is so important to learn how to direct your attention at the right things during those times. While you are putting out your proverbial fires, there will be gaps in between – either when you are waiting in line at the supermarket or are stuck in heavy traffic on your way to work. These moments will make up a large part of your life so you must master your ability to pay attention to the right things when you choose to.

What are the wrong things? Everything that doesn’t matter, the endless self-scrutiny, the criticism of others, the fear of the future. the memory of the past, insecurity, anxiety. This is the default setting of the human mind. You don’t need to put any effort to think about those things, they come too easily, too naturally. But they ruin your experience of life.

The Mental Trap

Thoughts are like a drug, you become addicted to them, and each demands to be at the forefront of your attention, but they are not accurate representations of the world, they don’t tell you how you should act or who you are They are mostly noise, which if you take seriously, will lead you to the wrong conclusions about life. It is not the world that traps the mind, it is the mind itself that does that.

The limits on your behavior, on your future plans, and on how you interpret the world depend more about the neurological wiring of your brain, than on only the limits of the external world. And this is because of a plain truth about human existence – we are all hopelessly self-centered. Everything we know and do revolves around our direct experience of it. All the knowledge that matters is the knowledge we know.

This self-centeredness is a reason for our basic anxiety. When an angry driver cuts us off, we automatically think that they got in our way, but don’t every ask ourselves whether we got in their way (they were in a bigger emergency).

This is not only to sell the idea of compassion, but to show that using ourselves as a frame of reference inevitably distorts the truth of our world. We see things from our vantage point, and from that vantage point, the world is much smaller, much more frustrating, and much more hostile. When you practice focusing your attention, when you practice mindfulness, you become more connected to the reality around you, and more disconnected from your narrow ego.

Knowing Your God

The danger of being too connected to your ego, your story, your goals, is that they become your masters. Anything that you sacrifice for is a contender for your “god” position – which will dictate to you the terms of your existence.

The atheists think that they have no god, but this is false. Everyone has their god, whether they explicitly acknowledge it or not.

If you are a theist, you explicitly acknowledge your God, whether Judaeo Christian or Islamic. But if you are an atheist, you proclaim yourself to be an independent thinker, with nothing that enslaves you. But this is nothing but a joke. You are enslaved by something else. It may be money or fame or pleasure or any number of things, but it is your highest value. That is what controls your decisions, how you spend your time, what you care about, and even who you care about.

It is not only that you should be mindful of the transient nature of your thoughts, or the self-centeredness of your ego, but you should remind yourself that you are constantly enslaved to something. You should not deceive yourself into thinking you are free, because the second you do, you will have fallen for the trap. You will have become an unconscious servant to something, and then you will forget to be alert and mindful, you will revert to your automatic mode.

The only way out of this trap is a constant struggle against yourself.

"A gilded No is more satisfactory than a dry yes" - Gracian

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