Dear Mr. Wallace,
I have a sense that the typical pleasantries that begin a typical letter aren’t really your thing, so I’ll cut the crap and get straight to the point of my letter. While I loved your speech, I have a couple of bones to pick with your publisher.
First, I hated the one-sentence-per-page format of the book form. There were a few instances where it worked well for dramatic effect. Like in the beginning, after your opening “fish story” anecdote, the one line “I am not the wise old fish” (7) forced me to pause and give thought to that statement. You are not the wise guru coming down from on-high to impart to us a small nugget of truth from your store of worldly wisdom. You are just one of us. Perhaps a little farther along on life’s journey than the roomful of college graduates. But just one of us.
But back to my point. While the one-sentence-per-page format did, at times, give the speech a sort of pseudo-poetic quality, I hated having to pause midthought to turn the page. It worked when there was a long, complex sentence followed by a short, simple sentence. It lent itself to the aforementioned dramatic effect. But in the cases of a series of short, simple sentences or a series of long, complex or compound sentences, it just got annoying after a while.
Looking for answers as to why the editors and publishers chose to stretch a six-page speech into 137 pages, I turned to the inside flap of the dust jacket (which was hermetically sealed to the cover of the book; it was a library copy). And there it was: “$14.99.” The media moguls at Hachette Book Group, Inc. probably figured it was a lot easier to convince the average American to spend $14.99 ($16.99 in Canada) on a book that is 137 pages instead of one that is only six pages. God bless capitalism.
My second beef with the publisher is the subtitle of “Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.” It sounds so… inspirational. But they totally missed the point of your speech (I would have placed an exclamation point there, but I really hate using exclamation points. It feels so third grade. And I would have put all of this in a footnote as a sign of respect, but I haven’t figured out how to do footnotes in a blog post yet. That will be one of my secondary goals for this project). Did the editor who came up with that clever subtitle even read your speech?
Pages 43-44 very clearly state that your point is not to espouse your ideas on living a compassionate life. You say, “But please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directness or all the so-called ‘virtues.’ This is not a matter of virtue – it’s a matter of choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hardwired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered, and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self.”
Your speech is not about compassion or other-centeredness. Your mention of compassion and of trying to see things from others’ perspective are merely anecdotal appeals to pathos to make your larger point. Your point is not that we need to think of others or realize that each of us is not the center of the universe. Your point is that our “default setting” as you call it, one of ego-centrism, is actually harmful to our mental and emotional well-being. If we remain in this self-centered default setting, we remain prisoners to our whims and emotions. We merely exist.
The “learning how to think” cliché that you mention at the beginning of the speech is, as you say, “[that each of us] get[s] to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t” (95). This choosing allows us to break free from our default setting. Choosing what to think about and choosing what has meaning for us (which will involve considering the perspectives and plights of others) is not for the betterment of mankind, it is for us. Our own happiness and even mental and emotional stability depend on it.
You go on to say on pages 98-101 that “In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everyone worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” You follow these statements with an explanation of worshipping the material and superficial. If we worship these things – beauty, wealth, intelligence – our lives will never seem good enough and we will never find true fulfillment.
It is only when we take control of our thoughts that we gain our freedom. We can allow ourselves to be slaves to our emotions and victims of our circumstances. Or we can choose to find meaning in the mundane. We can find beauty and truth – perhaps even capital-T Truth – in the midst of the boring and frustrating and monotonous events of our daily lives. We all have the ability to choose; we simply need to exercise that ability to choose.
Not exercising this freedom of choice has serious consequences, but I think you put it best when you say on page 55, “if you cannot or will not exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”