Of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving… The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
- David Foster Wallace, in a 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College.
Please read this speech if you haven’t already. I can’t admit to having read much of Wallace’s work before his death, but I have been profoundly moved by his words. In a talk that must have lasted less than 30 minutes, Wallace hit upon something that I have been trying to articulate, in one way or another, for many years.
There are two fundamentally different modes of living. Wallace describes the first, perhaps more common, mode as the “default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth,” which is “to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.” Its opposite is a constant internal struggle towards self-awareness and empathy, part of which involves being sometimes painfully aware of how often one falls short of that goal.
I believe this divide explains many modern phenomena: why driving sucks, for example, or much political rhetoric this season.