From ‘This is Water’ to ‘This is Love’

David Foster Wallace’s graduation speech to Kenyon College is one of the most read speeches on the internet. You can read it here or listen online here. Its power lies in the exposure of the reality of our lives. It’s written without judgment but with blunt self-confession by a master writer. Reading it you find yourself thinking, ‘yes—that is exactly how it feels’ or ‘oh … that makes sense!’

I want to start with two quotes: Here is the first blunt self-confession.

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness 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 are not the absolute centre 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 must be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

The second quote is this.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship … and the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship … is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.

Wallace exposes us to two truths at the same time: we can’t help but exist with ourselves at the centre of everything; and that life is an act of worshipping. We all worship something or somebody.

Wallace exposes us to two truths at the same time. One is that we can’t help but exist with ourselves at the centre of everything. And this is terrible. And second, that life is an act of worshipping. We all worship something or somebody. That is quite the graduation speech.

The Water We Swim In

The whole speech is called ‘This is water.’ The water is more than our everyday lives unfolding in our homes, our businesses, our conversations, our shopping temples, or our Netflix choices. The water is the lens we bring to all these things. The water is us and our desires, choices and perspectives. We make up the culture and the water. Your life and my life are the water.

And what is this water like? It’s terrible. It makes me think everything ought to be about me. As Wallace imagines it:

I’m going to be p—-d and miserable every time I have to foodshop, because my natural default-setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me, about my hungriness 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 nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line … and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people.’

Wallace offers us a profound insight into our lives. As I read the speech the first time, I kept nodding, ‘Yes, I’ve felt this and thought this.’ And I’ve hated it. It is a huge admission.

Wallace offers a offers a solution so that we might live differently.

… 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-centreed, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

We need to adjust our hard-wired default setting, by seeing our self-centreedness and changing.  Somehow, we must constantly hold in front of us that ‘this is water’ and then get free of the water. We must alter how we think for it is the wrong way to think.[1] And, if we keep this in front of us and somehow alter our default-setting, we will become ‘well adjusted’.

False Solution

But I’m afraid to say it won’t work. Perhaps Wallace knew this. The giveaway is the use of the word somehow in the above quote.

The reason his solution won’t work is that it does not go deep enough. His solution has wrapped up in it the assumption that the primary driver and shaper for each of us is our thinking. He wants us to work at changing our perspective. This is a thinking alteration.

This solution does not go deep enough. Our pop songs, movies, books and lives are about love. Love lost, love found, love redeemed, love in adversity, love despite the cost and a million other heart beats of love. People are thinking creatures. There is no doubt about that. But it isn’t thinking that drives us. It isn’t our thinking that puts our own life at the centre of the universe and wants everyone else to get out of our way. It is what we love.  And what we love (worship) is ourselves and what makes us feel loved.

This solution does not go deep enough. It isn’t our thinking that puts our own life at the centre of the universe and wants everyone else to get out of our way. It is what we love.

Thomas Cranmer, the English theologian, had a summary that captures this. ‘What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies.’ The heart’s desires come first.

Which is why the Bible consistently and deeply critiques our loves and shows us God’s love. Take the apostle John’s first letter to some Christians: ‘Do not love the world or things in the world. Anyone who loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.’ (1 John 2:15).

The choice for the Christian is between two loves, not two thoughts.

Between Two Loves

We live in the world with ourselves at the centre because each of us is driven and directed by love. Love for ourselves. Love for how the world around us can (and should!) gratify our desires and make us feel loved. And so, we worship, things in the world. The water is not one of thinking but self-loving. No amount of adjusted thinking will dislodge this love from our heart. The desires are deeper than thought.

Which brings us to a new issue. If you want to know what water is who is the last one you should ask? It’s a fish.[2] Why is that? All that a fish has ever known is water. It can’t tell you how to live differently for it knows only one way of being.

If you want to know what water is who is the last one you should ask? It’s a fish. Why is that? All that a fish has ever known is water. It can’t tell you how to live differently for it knows only one way of being.

This insight might lead us to despair. Our hearts are the problem and we cannot change them.

Love at the Centre

But Christianity offers a deep solution. A solution in which love is at the centre—a love other than our love: God’s love. “This is love, not that we love God but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:10)

Here is love without self at the centre. We did not love God. But God, despite our despising of him, loved us. His love wasn’t all about him. If it was all about him, he wouldn’t have loved unlovely us. His love was other-person centred—directed toward us.

The second thing to notice is that this love is not about gaining but giving. God sent his Son. He gave Jesus, And he gave him in the most incredible way—as a sacrifice for our sin. Jesus was given to die for us on the cross. God did not gain but we did.

Jesus’ sacrificial death covered over (atoned for) our sin. What is sin? It’s what David Foster Wallace described—a self-centreed view of the world in which we are the centre and others are ‘cow-like and dead-eyed and non human,’ unless of course they fulfil our loves. And this view includes God. We view him as ‘cow-like and dead-eyed’ as well.

God’s love for us is very different from our love. God’s love for us is the deep solution we need. We need our self love displaced by God’s love for us in Jesus. This alteration happens when we speak to God, telling him we reject our life of self love, we accept Jesus’ death for us, we accept God’s love for us, and we ask him to change our hearts.

And the promise of God is that he will welcome us into his love and change our hearts. He will bring about this deep change by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God will enter us and change us so that our heart starts to love God rather than ourselves and the world. The alteration will be a change in what we love. We will love God and others rather than our self.

Over time this becomes a deep change. Our water becomes one of love for God and love for others because God has altered our heart and what we love. This is the solution we need.

First published at

[1] Notice how many times the words ‘think’ or ‘thinking’ are used and words related to deciding or choosing in the eighth and ninth paragraphs.
[2] Thanks Augustine for this insight.