In late August, 2001, I returned to the United States after 4 months abroad. Since then, I have learned fascinating things about the way I think. Or, rather, the way I choose to think.
I remember the moment I chose to quit my two jobs and buy a one way ticket out of the country. A group of us was sitting under the scoreboard at Orioles Park in Camden Yards in Baltimore. To my right was a young woman named Kristy. I chose to engage her in conversation that could be more accurately described as a lamenting monologue about my dissatisfaction with my jobs and my life.
Her response was like a slap across the face. “Why don’t you do something about it?”
Two weeks later, with a backpack, a passport and no real plan, I was on a plane to Ireland. My mother’s cousin put me to work on construction sites about an hour west of Dublin. From there, I traversed the coast of Ireland for 3 weeks, then spent 2 months exploring 11 countries in Western Europe.
The only people I knew were new friends that I had just met on a bus, a train, or in a hostel. One day, I would share a baguette and bottle of wine on the steps of the Basilica Sacre Coeur watching the sun set over the Parisian skyline, and the next day I would be walking over the Charles Bridge in Prague admiring the gothic architecture of one of the few cities spared in WWII. I celebrated the 4th of July with two Aussies in Nice, France. I slept on a park bench in Pamplona, Spain and then ran with the bulls along the infamous cobblestone streets.
After I had conquered Europe, I joined some old friends for nearly a month in India. Two of them were getting married and we had arranged some time to explore the country. From Delhi to Agra to Jaipur and Hyderabad, again my senses were overloaded with the smells, sights, and tastes of a truly foreign place.
Every day was an adventure. Every day was full of excitement. Every day was filled with something and someone new.
In hindsight, I can clearly see why coming back to the United States was difficult for me. I did not adapt well. I was confused and felt lost. On some days, I had feelings of depression, and on other days, panic attacks. I turned alcohol and drugs to seek comfort, which of course just makes things worse. I was more dissatisfied after my trip than before it. I was frustrated and unhappy that my “regular life” was so boring and routine.
Taking a lunch break from another unsatisfying job, my good friend Dave turned to me and said, “Matt, this is life. The alarm goes off in the morning, you go to a job, you come home, do some laundry, and go grocery shopping on the weekends, and try to make time for friends. This is the way it is for most of us and you have to find ways to be happy.”
At the time, I didn’t understand how to think. I have reflected on my experience over and over again and have even written about it before. But not until recently, did someone else put that experience into perspective for me. David Foster Wallace, a renowned philosopher, writer, and teacher gave a commencement address in 2005 that has only recently come to my attention.
His claim is that a higher education degree does not necessarily mean that we have been taught how to think. In fact, it is not our capacity to think that is at question, but our ability to choose what to think about.
Having focused on this exact nuance for the last 3 years, I can tell you that being aware of what and how you think is probably the single greatest gift you can give to yourself and others.
I invite you to listen to the full commencement speech below which is a little over 20 minutes. I will admit that Mr. Wallace’s intellect is impressive and at times his vernacular is a little heady. Stick with it though – I think you will find his words thought-provoking.
I would love to hear your thoughts – please leave a comment below.
Much love and gratitude,