Flowchart: David Foster Wallace On How To Live A Compassionate Life

In "This Is Water," David Foster Wallace offers thoughts on living a compassionate life. Jessica Hagy beautifully illustrates them here.

David Foster Wallace's "This Is Water," an essay derived from his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, has become one of the most famous pieces of 21st-century writing on living a compassionate life. Over at Medium, illustrator Jessica Hagy has boiled down one of the most moving aspects of the essay into this poetic cyclical flowchart:

Jessica Hagy

The section she illustrates is toward the middle of the essay, where, without an ounce of preachiness, Wallace considers the value of taking time to recognize the humanity of strangers in a crowd. These strangers might be in your way at a grocery store checkout line or in a traffic jam. They might appear, on the surface, "stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman," he writes. Such an effort requires challenging "the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities." He goes on:

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.

In "Soaking In Wonder," Hagy turns this sentiment into a flowchart, with line graphs positioned like stops along a river. It’s a simple representation of how the effects of Wallace's entreaty—"really learn how to pay attention"—build on themselves to help compassion grow.

[h/t Medium]

[Infographic: Jessica Hagy]

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2 Comments

  • The beauty of Foster's work is that it can be illustrated (like this) and shared for generations....the ugly reality is that society expects everything be dumbed-down or narratives be provided.

    This was well done, I hope it inspires readers to dig deeper & further invest in Foster's work.

  • Steven Ringsmuth Stolpman

    I have played these spoken words with group of teenagers, but I don't anymore. As an activity, it was a success. The group listened word by word, one girl even asking me to pause so that she could soak it in. The group, usually resistant to 'deep talks' spent the rest of the hour discussing the beauty of the choices he recommends and how it might revolutionize their lives. Alas, two things from the discussion make me reluctant to use it again, I'm still thinking about it. First, a girl said she felt this idea was a beautiful "prison" because there is no end to the work. Second, the possible confirmation of what she asserted, was explaining that the wise author committed suicide. This was a good point for mental health awareness, and getting help. All the same, there was enough hopelessness in the room already.