My escape from the center of the universe

One of the hardest life-lessons I’ve learned is that it’s not always “all about me.”

I recently listened to David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College and heard this theme addressed in a most cogent way. It made me go back and think about my own departure from that time of my life in which I was the center of the universe. I wish I had heard Wallace’s speech around the time I graduated from college – if I had been receptive, or even able to understand his concepts, I might have had an easier time earlier in my life.

My ruminating about this took me back quite a few years, to the early part of my 15-year stint as editorial product development manager for BNA’s Tax Management subsidiary. After I’d been there a few years, I developed a pretty sweet personal-work relationship with a tax editor named Av Ben Israel. By that I mean, our jobs were different and seldom intertwined but we worked near each other and talked every day. He was a big man who carried a lot of tension in his neck and shoulders, and after I got to know him pretty well I began stopping in his office or behind his chair at a computer bank to work some knots out of his muscles. He generally grunted a bunch and thanked me profusely before I went back to my own work.

One day, when I came up behind Av at the computer bank, he shrugged my hands off his shoulders and barked at me not to touch him. I was taken aback, to say the least. Later, I saw him sitting for about an hour in his manager’s office with the door closed. I wondered what I had done ... Over the next several days he refused my attempts to speak with him, and this sent me into a deep depression – the kind that makes you feel completely detached from your body. I worried that perhaps he was filing a complaint against me for touching him, I didn’t understand what had changed in our relationship, and I withdrew into some inner place deep within myself – but I never talked with anyone about it.

My detached, depressed feeling went on for a few weeks, and then slowly I was able to make my way out of the deep emotional hole I had dug for myself. I still wondered what I had done, what had changed my relationship with Av. Many weeks went by, and Av disappeared from the office before I found out that he had been diagnosed with AIDS. He left us way too quickly after that – and way, way, way too young. I never spoke with him again.

I wish I could tell you that I had a great revelation from this experience, after finding out about the diagnosis and realizing that I played no part in the end of this friendship. I wish I could say that I never again thought something was “about me” when it wasn’t at all. I’m probably not alone among relatively well-adjusted people in feeling, in retrospect, that it took years of hard work to come out of that place in the universe at which I was the center. David Foster Wallace spoke about it this way: “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.”

I could not have written about this experience now if I had not just listened to the Kenyon College commencement speech that David Foster Wallace gave almost nine years ago. But after listening to the speech, and going through some interesting conversations with family and friends last week, I’m convinced that this leap of mine that began more than 15 years ago was among the most important personal-growth experiences of my life. Not an easy one, to be sure – it’s not one I recommend to you if you shy away from the hard work of self-awareness.

But, so enriching – so rewarding. Just think about it. Start slowly ...


If you want to hear David Foster Wallace's speech, here's a YouTube link.

The text of the speech is here, for those who prefer to read...  

Some of the themes in a Huffington Post article I just read on living with cancer contributed to my thoughts about this.

And once again, thanks to my friend John Schappi, whose blog post on New Year's Day gave me the link to the YouTube speech.