We continued through the endless expanse of Nevada desert toward the California border. As we drove, we listened to an audio recording of “This is Water,” a graduation speech given by the late writer David Foster Wallace at Kenyon College in 2005. In the speech, Wallace talks about the function of a liberal arts education as less “teaching you how to think” and more “teaching you what’s worth thinking about.” For him, the goal is to elicit simple awareness of the reality of the world around us despite our subjective “default setting” that tells each of us that we are at the absolute center of the universe, over and over again. The message really resonated with me. After all, I had already forgotten much of the content and detail and precise subject matter of all of the courses and lectures and interactions I had experienced at Bowdoin. What I did take with me, though, was an expanded field of consciousness in which I became more engaged with the world around me, and more committed to internalizing the realities of others as my own. I was able to look beyond the “prison of the self,” as Wallace calls it–understanding the world as it is from other perspectives and cherishing my own interconnectivity with all that abounds. In many ways, my collegiate experience was structurally conducive to that development–I did not have to worry about supporting myself at school, preparing three meals a day, or tirelessly looking for a place to live. It was all provided for, giving me an incredibly privileged platform to think and engage and expand. I was able to take a step back and ruminate on my humble existence on this life-giving rock floating through space, and to have some real choice about what I want to think about while I’m here.
As I graduated to the world beyond, and embraced my relative independence on this road trip, I realized I had to fight every single day to cultivate the expanded field of consciousness I had developed and learned to cherish at Bowdoin. Very quickly, the immediate necessities of everyday life became that much more apparent. Where would I eat my next meal? Where would I sleep? How much money is all these choices costing me, and how much labor and time and energy would it take to make up for it? On the one hand, I embraced the kind of raw experience this provided, seemingly more “real” than the kind of artificial institutional environment I had been coddled in at Bowdoin. Though I was not fending for food and water and shelter in a state of nature, my next meal or place to stay was not readily apparent. That’s what it takes to be an adult, I told myself, and I was committed to building independence and self-sufficiency at this point in my life, as the generosity of others had given me enough knowledge and tools and resources to take off.
But at the same time, I questioned the importance of consuming myself with everyday necessities when the scope of awareness and ultimately influence I want to have in the world is much larger. I was certainly not abrasive to work, and planning to find a job when we landed on the west coast, but would I really ever have to worry about meeting my most basic needs in life? I realized it was a highly privileged perspective, but if I defined my absolute necessities most narrowly, I thought I could get by alright. After all, the time I spent concerned with when I would eat and drink and sleep was time that I would not be engaging on a higher plane of consciousness–time not simply spent in a realm of abstraction for my own gain but working toward a greater purpose for the good of others. Does that suggest that the time I spent concerned with basic necessities was unimportant, or more narrowly, unfruitful toward my greater development as a person? I knew the answer was no. I knew these experiences were essential in both building my independence, and understanding the real costs of the lifestyle I lead in a way that would allow me to be more intentional with my time. As much as I had recognized the privilege I enjoyed throughout my years of formal education, I realized I had not actively internalized the true costs and sacrifices of others that made those experiences possible–whether it be my parents who financed it, the staff members who stayed after hours to help me, or the dining hall workers who provided an immaculate array of food day in and day out. This was the “Real World,” and I needed to understand the true costs of my own life in order to situate myself in the world around me, to build a lifestyle that would fulfill my real needs, and to be intentional with how I use my time moving forward.
I gazed out the window as the desert landscape gave rise to vegetation and signs of human life in California. I sat with it. How would I reconcile my value for self-sufficiency and meeting my basic needs with my value for broader-scale engagement and influence? Well, I didn’t really know. But what I did know was that these values were both absolutely essential to me. I would have to be realistic, intentional and responsible for providing for my basic needs moving forward, while fighting hard to manifest the expanded field of awareness, understanding, and compassion that gives my life meaning on an everyday basis.