David Foster Wallace was an American thinker and writer, best known for his novel Infinite Jest. He passed away in 2008, which is a loss to all of us because we could desperately benefit from his thinking right now. In 2005, just a few years before his death, he gave a commencement speech at Kenyon College that has become known as the “This Is Water” speech. It was turned into a very short book which you can buy here if you’re so inclined. (I bought a used copy for like $3.)
Much of Wallace’s speech is focused on how the liberal arts are designed to teach us how to think differently and maybe get a bit outside of ourselves so that we may have a bit more critical awareness of ourselves, to realize, “a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.”
He goes into one such example here (bolding mine, italics his):
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 think 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, hardwired 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 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.
First, the comment about our self-centeredness being our “default setting” struck me as soon as I read it because when I talk to the students in our youth ministry about original sin, I use the “default setting” language and they get it.
But isn’t this posture true of all of us, not just Wallace? It’s really just natural to see yourself as the center of the universe, even apart from the sinfulness of it, because you see the entire experience of life from your perspective. As close as you are to your spouse or your children or your church family, it is impossible for you to literally experience life as they do. No amount of time or investment of social energy can lead us to truly live life in through the eyes of others.
How easy is it, then, for everyone in our lives to become characters in a movie all about us? Our spouse is the love interest of the main character. Our boss is the curmudgeonly-but-lovable villain who means well but is too old fashioned for his own good. Our kids are the comic relief and the way we learn about our own selfishness. Everyone else is just extras on our movie set.
Wallace is right: our default setting is to see the entire world in relation to ourselves. We never think about the fact that we are actually a supporting actor in someone else’s movie.
The connection to social media and the broader age of the social internet ought to be clear, right?
Social media perpetuates the idea that we are the main character in our own story. It allows us to take our personal movie to market and share it with the world. It’s no fun being the star of your own movie if no one else can experience it. But now, with the innovation of social media, we can take our performance on the road and show everyone that we are the stars of our own lives.
The Christian implications of this phenomenon are many. Perhaps we are best off seeing ourselves as supporting actors or even extras in God’s story in which Jesus Christ is the star. I don’t know what the right metaphorical parallels are here, but I think it’s safe to say that God is much closer to being the star of the human experience than you and I are.
If you’ve ever wondered about or maybe been skeptical about social media perpetuating self-centeredness, this should ease your skepticism and confirm your wonderings.
The idea that social media is a neutral tool equally possible to be used for good or bad is genuinely foolish. I used to believe this, so I’m not being critical of anyone in particular here. I am a convert from this wrong-headed idea.
As you tap and swipe and scroll, consider how your favorite social media platforms may be training you to see yourself as the center of your universe, and perhaps as the center of others’ universes. How does this change how you view other people? Perhaps it makes you see them as less important and their needs as unfortunate consequences of not being the main character of the story.
The pings and red dots and notifications and hearts and thumbs-ups on all of our manicured content feigning authenticity reinforces the reality that “there is no experience that you were not at the absolute center of.”