David Foster Wallace, Seagulls, and Learning How to Think



This month is the 20th birthday of the publication of Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s famous novel. I’ve been using it as an excuse to wade through David Foster Wallace quotes and to reread my favourite piece of his: This is Water.

The reason why I love DFW’s writing is because of his substance of thought. He has the ability to take you on a wild journey of tangents and then drop you right into moments of clarity where, somehow, everything you read before comes together to make sense in a deeper, richer way.

In DFW’s own words, from This is Water, he emphasizes the importance of learning the art of thought:

“‘Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

What does that actually mean, though? We all know how to think because we do it automatically every day. It’s involuntary.

That’s exactly what Wallace is getting at. There’s thinking, and then there’s active thought. It’s about noticing and connecting things and considering questions like “why” and “how” to push that initial thought over the edge. This is important because what you think eventually shapes who you are.

It’s like a series of doors. The initial thought is the welcome mat outside the first door. It is up to you to open the doors, further and further, until you come to a place that is totally different from where you started, yet still connected.

When I was in high school, my english teacher took our whole class to the hallway and pointed out the window at a tree.

“How many of you noticed that tree before?” he asked.

A few people nodded. Some raised their hands.

“Well, now that you see it, I want you to make a point of noticing it every time you pass this window,” he said. “Really look at it. Note the changes it makes over time.”

I had not really noticed the tree before that day, but I couldn’t not notice the tree after my teacher pointed it out. I saw it change through the seasons. Sometimes the tree seemed to match my mood. Sometimes it reminded me of a character or made think about our responsibility to the environment.

The point is that noticing the tree gave me something. I would have missed insight and beauty if I would have kept walking past that window every day without taking the time to truly see the tree. I wouldn’t have trained myself to really see.

That, according to Wallace, is the key:

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able to truly 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.”

We’ve all seen seagulls on the beach when they find some piece of thrown-away food. They flock around it, fight over it, and generally create a lot of chaos around something very small like a french fry or a Pringle.

That’s like the “rat race” or “the masses.” The truth is that the most intriguing stories come from those who dare to notice and jump on that train of thought. A story about a seagull who flies off from the group to find his own french fry is far more interesting than the one who stays with the group. He’ll also have the opportunity to eat the whole french fry by himself.

But, maybe, he’ll bring it back to share with the group. Maybe he’ll teach the other seagulls how to split up and gather food to share. Maybe the whole group will be impacted positively because one seagull decided to pursue the idea that there may be more french fries out there than the one everyone else is fighting over.

This idea applies to school. It applies to work. It applies to life. This is what good literature does.

It helps us expand our understanding by showing us what others notice.

It illuminates awareness.

It’s empowering.

It teaches us how to think.



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