The unrelenting belief that one is the center of the universe

September 27, 2008 | By | 8 Replies More

David Foster Wallace gave the following thought-provoking commencement speech to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College.  He said many important things to the graduates, all of which you can read here.

I tend to admire those thinkers who can put their finger on elephants in the room–those obvious things that most of us overlook, unconsciously or otherwise.  Wallace has identified one of those elephants:  We are all hard-wired to strongly believe that we are the center of the universe.  It takes sustained mental effort to think otherwise, as Wallace points out.  Here’s an excerpt:

A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea. But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called “virtues.” This is not a matter of virtue — it’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default-setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.

People who can adjust their natural default-setting this way are often described as being “well adjusted,” which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.

Epilogue:  Wallace died two weeks ago, apparently after committing suicide.


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About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. In the Physics way, we, as individual observers, are at the centers of our own individual event horizons and thus at the centre of it all. This however does not imply that we are at the centre of attention, except maybe for our own selves.

  2. seek says:

    "does not imply that we are at the centre of attention"

    Do you think Wallace's observations would hold for cross-cultural studies? I'm just curious what the results could be if someone from a more collectivistic society interacted with this description. Obviously, that person on some level is still a center of their own subjectivity. But they might not be presently aware of it in the same way we are. Thanks for the quote Erich^^

  3. DFW was one of my favorite writers of all time. I envied his ability to crystallize vague thoughts that I have always had and set them down on paper with intelligence and wit. News of his death shocks and pains me deeply.

    I recommend, to anyone that is interested his book of essays "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again." If I highlighted every passage where I thought "I wish I wrote that" the pages would be more yellow than white.

  4. Hmm, "There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of." I love it when people tell me what i have experienced and love it even more when they are so very very wrong. Clearly Wallace knew little about mystical experiences nor had he likely ever experienced the joys of psychedelics but rest assured this experiences the sages of old and new speak of, for example of being one with the universe are no mere poetic allusions but an attempt to express in limited words exactly the sort of experience Wallace has denied me of even having. Sadly Wallace himself by virtue of his own humanity has certainly had such experiences they were just so far outta his mental representation of reality he failed to grok and remember the profound joy one has in such a state of boundless egolessness.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Starhawk Laughingsun: Wallace wasn't saying that this attitude is inevitable. He was saying that we have to work at it to get beyond it. That is my read.

  6. Starhawk, it can be argued that trips outside oneself, with or without psychedelics, are illusions contained completely within your own head. Like religious certainty of any kind, this is hard to prove or disprove.

    Even egolessness swells the ego, it seems.

  7. Erich Vieth, that is a good point; we do indeed have to work to get beyond this "unrelenting belief that one is the center of the universe” with or without psychedelics mediation or mysticism. And Mike Pulcinella of course in a certain sense all perceptions of Reality whatever that is are in fact contained completely within our own heads. Certainty of ones experience or metaphysical philosophy is in fact a different thing than acknowledging the authenticity of the experience and acknowledging the irrelevance of metaphysical assumptions. It is not the state of egolessness that swells the ego it is the simple fact most of us me included can not stay in such a state, mystical literature and tradition aside I am not sure we would even want to.

  8. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Translation to Homer-speak:

    Mmmmmm… Phenomenology

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