In 2005, David Foster Wallace (the author of countless articles and several books, including the wonderful Infinite Jest) gave a commencement speech at Kenyon College. You can read the full speech here, and I encourage you to do so; I read it every few months myself.
His speech is about the value and inspiration in everyday life. He starts off by describing the challenge of “day in, day out” adult life, which is undoubtedly a grind. He gives an example of these kinds of boring routines a third of the way in:
The plain fact is that you graduating seniors do not yet have any clue what “day in day out” really means. There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration. The parents and older folks here will know all too well what I’m talking about.
By way of example, let’s say it’s an average adult day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging, white-collar, college-graduate job, and you work hard for eight or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired and somewhat stressed and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for an hour, and then hit the sack early because, of course, you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home. You haven’t had time to shop this week because of your challenging job, and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the work day and the traffic is apt to be: very bad. So getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there, the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping. And the store is hideously lit and infused with soul-killing muzak or corporate pop and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be but you can’t just get in and quickly out; you have to wander all over the huge, over-lit store’s confusing aisles to find the stuff you want and you have to manoeuvre your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts (et cetera, et cetera, cutting stuff out because this is a long ceremony) and eventually you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough check-out lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush. So the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating. But you can’t take your frustration out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpasses the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college.
On the flip side of that miserable experience, there’s this:
The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.
Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people probably have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do.
He goes on to point out that seeing things like this is all about what you choose to consider in your daily life:
But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
I read this speech once every few months because it reminds me of something truly important that I need to keep central in my own life.
The truth is, I have it pretty good in life. I make a good income for an American and a great income compared to the rest of the world. My health isn’t perfect (my hearing is shot, for example, and my thyroid doesn’t really function), but it’s good enough to do almost everything I want to do in life.
Given the advantages I have, it is pretty sad if I can’t keep my financial house straight. Our family earns an annual income that’s at the very least comparable to the national average (mine tends to vary a lot). We have no debts and own our own home.
If we can’t save a lot of money each year, it means nothing more than an addiction to spending, period. It means that we need to rethink what we’re doing with our money from top to bottom. It means that I’m using money in a completely ineffective way and not preparing myself for the kinds of challenges that are likely to appear on the horizon at some point down the road.
As Wallace points out in his speech, I interact with people all day long who likely have a worse situation than I have. Some are in a worse financial position. Others are dealing with life burdens that I don’t have, whether it’s their own health or a deep crisis with a loved one.
I use that as inspiration.
Everyone you meet out there has struggles in their lives. Some of them likely blow away what you’re dealing with. One guy might have very little money and is worried about feeding his kids for the rest of the week. The lady at Starbucks might be stressed out about her mother battling with end-stage cancer several states away. Another person might be suffering from very loud ringing in their ears that never goes away (yes, tinnitus is a real thing and a lot of people have it).
When I see people out there going through the challenges of their daily lives and knowing that at least some of them are doing it in the face of some real challenges, I find that really inspiring. It keeps me humble. It keeps me focused on my own goals.
This doesn’t excuse rudeness, of course, but to me, it does make it worthy of note when people have a smile on their face and do their job well. To me, that’s another inspiration. That happy guy running the checkout lane at Target shows me that whatever I’m struggling with, why not struggle with it by accepting and finding joy in the good things in my life?
The next time you’re at the store or going about the other elements of your daily life, take a real look at the people around you. Many of them do not have anywhere near the income you have. Many of them are struggling with personal challenges far beyond what you’re struggling with.
Yet, here they are, doing their jobs, going about their daily tasks, and moving forward.
If they can handle those challenges, I can handle the challenge of staying financially fit. I can handle any challenge that life throws before me.