This is the first in a series of blog posts inspired by my friend and colleague Marcus Rimboch, who asked me to respond to a series of ten questions originally posed by Tim Ferris in his book Tribe of Mentors. In the first place, I am flattered to have been asked by Marcus, and I’m thankful for his inspiring this blog series. As I near the end of my career in the classroom, I am incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by a host of young teachers whose enthusiasm for and innovation in a profession I have loved for thirty-six years inspire me every day. Marcus is among the best of them.
Question #1: What is the book you’ve given most as a gift and why? What are three books that have greatly influenced your life?
The answer to the first half of this two-part question is easy: This is Water by David Foster Wallace (2009). This is Water is actually a print version of the commencement speech Wallace delivered to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005. One reason I often gift it is that the book is, at most, a ten-minute read. I’m also a big fan of two other Wallace novels (Infinite Jest and The Pale King), but each of these are veritable tomes that come in at around one thousand pages. My fear is that they would more likely be used to lift a laptop to eye-level during a Zoom meeting than to be read.
More significantly, the reason I gift This is Water is for the lessons it teaches on self-awareness and perspective. The title comes from the following anecdote Wallace shares at the beginning of his speech: “There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, ‘Morning, boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, ‘What the hell is water?’” Clearly, the young fish are woefully oblivious to what should be the most obvious of realities.
The point of the story is that most of us live in false realities that result from the “default settings” we have obtained either from nature or nurture. The most fundamental and hard-wired of these default settings being the notion that we are the center of the universe. This egotistical understanding of the world has been installed inside our unconscious. Like the the dark web realm of the Internet, which is invisible to search engines, our solipsism is invisible to our conscious mind. Unless we are aware that it exists — which is the goal of my gifting the book — we will never just stumble upon it. We must consciously choose to descend the dark stairs into the scary basement of our psyches to locate and re-program it. And we should want to re-program it, for it blinds us to the fact that we are each merely one temporary collection of atoms amongst an infinitesimal number of other collections of atoms, and we are, in fact, NOT that around which the cosmos rotates. According to Wallace, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race”-the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”
As for the three books that have most impacted my life, that question is much more difficult as there have been so many that have tweaked my understanding of my sojourn in this world. But as of today, here’s my list of three in order of the most significance. I’m not going to expound on my reasoning for their selection, I’ll just encourage you to read them for yourselves: 1) Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych, 2) Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, 3) Christopher Hitchens’ Letters to a Young Contrarian.
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One thought on “Ten Questions: Question #1”
Seems this is quite timely. I see many folks grappling with what is being told to them and what may be the right thing. It is difficult to give up things for the greater good. I have witnessed so many unwilling to do the right thing for their fellow humans! Perhaps they haven’t realized they are not the center of “our” universe.