Being "well-adjusted"

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.