The Sermon on Sadness That Became a Viral Hit

The Sermon on Sadness That Became a Viral Hit

By Chris Dickens

David Foster Wallace.
SourceGary Hannabarger/Corbis


That endless internal dialogue about me-me-me? There’s a way to turn it off.

By Chris Dickens

In 1996, when Harper’s Magazine sent writer David Foster Wallace on a seven-night Caribbean cruise, they were expecting a magazine-article-length, fish-out-of-water adventure. What they got back was practically a novella about the dread of death, and how being pampered for a week aboard an unsinkable vessel is little more than a denial of death’s inevitability. About a decade later, Kenyon College was less surprised when, in place of the commencement speech Wallace had been invited to give to the class of 2005, he delivered an unforgettable sermon on the sadnesses of modern life — and their cure.

The genius of all of Wallace’s writing (aside from the beauty and exactness of the language itself) lies in the way he worked within the boundaries of established forms while reshaping them in weird and beautiful ways, commenting on a genre as it underwent his origami. His speech begins conventionally enough, with what he calls the “deployment of [a] didactic little parable-ish” story about two fish that are ignorant to the fact that they are surrounded by a thing called water. But, after accepting the parabolic-opening as “one of the better, less bullshitty conventions” of the commencement genre, he quickly turns the practice on its head by signaling that this isn’t going to be a typical go-forth-and-excel speech. 

How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious …

“The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what ‘day in, day out’ really means,” he tells them. “There happen to be whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches.” From here out, the speech is largely about this “adult American life,” the water all around us that we’ve stopped noticing. It’s about resisting the boredom and tedium and cynicism of a ‘day in, day out’ life that seems to revolve ceaselessly around our own concerns and desires — and choosing to think about it all differently. Education — learning to pay attention — he proposes, opens another path.

“And I submit that this is what the real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.” 

The speech is a lesson in empathy and awareness, and a wake-up call to anyone listening, not just the graduates there on that day. The speech was published in book form four years later, and a short film dramatizing the speech became a viral hit. Wallace had pinpointed the very things he struggled with every day, what he saw as the soul-killing force relentlessly pursuing each of us. The fact that he killed himself three years later after a life-long battle with depression doesn’t negate Wallace’s wisdom here. It makes it all the more crucial. 

Listen to the speech in its entirety: