One of the great writers of our time, David Foster Wallace, delivered a highly influential speech in 2005. Three years later, when he was only 46 years old, Wallace killed himself.
Wallace's masterpiece novel, "Infinite Jest," has been acclaimed one of the best novels of the last hundred years. Wallace and his work are universally lauded. A writing class is taught on his ouvre at Harvard, a literary Society and professional Journal are devoted to his writing and a movie was made about his life. When he was young Wallace tried but abandoned a doctorate program at Harvard because it bored him: Wallace explained that philosophy requires only "50% of his brain" whereas creative writing uses "97%."
So what did David Foster Wallace talk about in his famous speech? He advanced two important positions. The first is that our "default setting," installed at birth, is our natural but mistaken belief that we are the center of the universe. If we consider ourselves and our interests as the sole focal point of all experience, we miss seeing reality outside our heads. Wallace illustrates this and how it leads to distorted, numb existence.
His second position points a way out of this dilemma. "I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about 'the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master'."
French philosopher Albert Camus, of whom I've written in the past, believed the only true question for us is: why not suicide? "There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide." Camus saw the question arising naturally as a solution to the absurdity of life.
Camus, unlike David Foster Wallace and most of us, witnessed the carnage and destruction of World War II first-hand. He fought the Nazis as a member of the French Resistance. If anyone was entitled to be a Gloomy Gus, it was Camus. Horrifying experiences inflicted existential despair on millions of war-time survivors.
Like Wallace, Camus was also widely admired. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1957. Two years later Camus died: he was 46 years old, the same age Wallace was at his death.
I have no urge toward suicide. I confess that on dark days I sometimes lose the will to live -- but that's categorically different from actively extinguishing one's existence. I view life as too precious a gift, even when damaged by injured senses, to go to the Return Counter. I'll exploit my opportunity for experience, as limited as it now is, without moaning What Has Happened To Me? (the default setting Wallace warns us about). Let's see what the future holds for all of us.