If you haven’t seen the video of David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water, an abridged version of his commencement speech at Kenyon College, then you have obviously just emerged out from under a fallen bookshelf and have not been able to access the Internet in the last week. For your benefit, here it is:
It might feel odd to take posthumous life advice from someone who killed himself less than three years after giving said advice, but that’s where Hyperbole and a Half’s brilliant post on depression comes in handy, to illustrate what depression is and is not.
The video had me going into my draft folder where half-finished blog posts go to die. Sure enough there’s benefitofthedoubt.doc from October 2011, where I inelegantly proposed the idea that DFW so eloquently expressed. I wish I’d known then of the unabridged transcript of his speech, available at the Internet Archive.
An excerpt from my draft (after a long and now outdated preamble framing the idea of giving people the benefit of the doubt):
One of the ways I still cope with my nervousness at doing interviews is to think that the interviewee is nervous. Sometimes I know it’s true, sometimes I suspect it’s not, but it doesn’t matter: thinking of the interviewee’s nerves takes the focus away from what I’m feeling and on to my job as interviewer, to make them more comfortable. (Disclaimer: I’m not saying I’m good at putting people more at ease, I’m saying it’s an effective brain trick to put myself more at ease.)
And that’s an even longer preamble to say that sometimes thinking of other people before yourself actually helps you, maybe even more than it helps them.
Maybe the person who cut you off in traffic is distracted because they just visited a loved one in the hospital. Or maybe they’re a jerk driver, but your rage won’t doesn’t teach them anything and makes you rage-y.
Obviously there’s a point where this line of thinking becomes disgustingly Pollyannaish, or making excuses for people who treat you badly, but in most cases what’s the downside to thinking of alternate explanations for these ephemeral interactions and reacting accordingly?
This was written before last summer, when I was the distracted driver returning from visiting a dying loved one in the hospital, or furiously concentrating on driving as smoothly as possible with him — precious, nauseous, pain-wracked cargo — in my car and therefore driving too tentatively. The summer when I wanted to beg every stranger we encountered to please be extra nice to him, and I wanted a tattoo on my forehead to say the same about me.
The upside to horrible experiences is it can give you empathy for the truth that everyone is carrying their own burden. But we don’t need to have experienced an identical burden. If we need an empathy lesson we can, for example, read Allie of Hyperbole and a Half sharing her story of depression.
Or as David Foster Wallace points out, we can also simply open our minds to the idea that we are all swimming in the same water.