This Week in Magical Thinking: David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water

Aeman Ansari / Ryersonian Staff

Aeman Ansari / Ryersonian Staff

I only have a few more days left as a student at the school of journalism and I am terrified.

I’m terrified of not having the status of being a student to hide behind anymore, terrified of having to figure out what I want to do for the rest of my life. But most of all, I’m terrified to graduate and go out into a world where people expect me to have all of the knowledge I need to survive. The truth is that university doesn’t teach you everything you need to know about a particular subject, it only teaches you how to begin learning, how to become open to the idea of education.

When I was in my last few weeks of high school and was just as terrified to leave, my English teacher handed me David Foster Wallace’s This is Water. This short book didn’t give me all of the answers to the growing list of questions I was compiling, but it did make me realize that this transition isn’t simple. I’m not alone — there are other people who are afraid of moving forward.

“Your education is the job of a lifetime, and it commences – now.”

This week I decided to reread Wallace’s commencement speech, in which he adopts a tone of simplicity different from most of his fiction. In this text, he speaks of life as an adult, of empathy and worship, and about the importance of being well-adjusted. He recognizes that the process of education does not end with getting a bachelor or master’s, or even a PhD. His words from 2005 are witty and truthful and cut to the heart of the anxiety that I — along with thousands of other students — might be feeling.

“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.”

While Wallace’s advice is inspiring, it doesn’t appease my worries. I’m 22 years old and I still haven’t decided what I want to do for a living. Since I was 10 years old, I only had two interests: Reading and writing. My siblings are both extroverts who are good at almost everything they try. I, on the other hand, have never been as personable as them. At the end of my degree, I still only have the same two interests and I’m not sure I can make a career out of them. Yes, my education helped me polish my writing and taught me a lot of additional skills, but I feel like I’m still trying to take the things I love most and support myself financially while doing them.

“‘Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over howand what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.”

When I applied for university programs, I thought I wouldn’t get accepted anywhere. I had little hope and the only reason I was even applying was because my parents spent years saving for my education and left their home in Pakistan for a brighter future for my siblings and me. I couldn’t disappoint them. I’m glad my parents convinced me to attend university the way they convinced me to take swimming lessons. At first I was afraid of even stepping into the water, but after the first couple of times, they had to beg me to come out. These past four years have been difficult. I’ve moved from one job to the next, one assignment to the next, one cup of coffee to the next, but I’ve also gained some self-confidence.

No matter what happens from here onwards, I know that I survived four years at one of the best journalism schools in the country. I spent the past four years doing what I loved most — reading and writing. I’m uncomfortable with the uncertainty that lies ahead, but like Wallace at the end of his speech, I’m hopeful.

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