‘The automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life, when I’m operating on an automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world’
The ‘Default Setting’ - David Foster Wallace
It’s hard to admit - without accepting that we are inherently selfish - that we often put ourselves at the centre of our own universe. Being rooted there means that the daily mundane, frustrating crap that we’re all faced with can feel like it’s more of a personal attack than it actually is. It’s the reason we get annoyed in slow moving traffic, or in a queue at the supermarket. We react as though the situation (or specifically, the person at the root of it) is intentionally disrupting our life, and as a result we get frustrated - this is a ‘default setting’ reaction.
Don’t worry - what follows isn’t an advert for a cult, a wanky self-help video, or an overpaid life-coach trying to sell his ‘secrets to success’ book. It’s an eloquent, hugely inspirational, and truthful speech that was given to a small graduation ceremony at Kenyon College, USA. I wish someone told me this at my graduation. In fact - they should probably just play it at every graduation ceremony, everywhere, forever.
I listened to David Foster Wallace’s speech 4 years ago, and it resonated enough that I made a conscious effort to change my ‘default setting’. Since this choice I haven’t been involuntarily pulled down by the mundane, petty frustrations of life. How? By realising that everything isn’t directly correlated to my life. By stepping out of the centre of the universe and considering another possible cause for whatever situation I happen to be faced with.
Here’s some real life examples:
FRUSTRATION : A car pulled out infront of me while cycling.
DEFAULT: HE NEARLY KILLED ME! DAMN IT, MAN - CAN’T YOU SEE ME?!
NEW THOUGHT: ‘It’s 7pm, maybe he’s tired? He’s probably been awake since 5 and had a brief lapse of judgement’
ACTION: I continued my day. Unphased. Alive.
FRUSTRATION: A guy walked clean into me. Shoulder to shoulder - clearly his fault but he shows no remorse.
NEW THOUGHT: ‘He was probably bullied by his dad, and feels the need to be overly masculine in adulthood to compensate’
ACTION: I walked away and didn’t say anything. Unphased. Not angry.
FRUSTRATION: A guy was being racist to the bus driver
NEW THOUGHT: Prick.
ACTION: I shouted - SHUT THE FUCK UP AND GET OFF THE BUS. (I never said I was a saint.)
You get the idea. It’s just empathy... with a little artistic license.
Regardless of how improbable the scenario that’s created, it’s not entirely impossible. I don’t know other people's situations or circumstances, and by briefly considering what they could be, rather than the unconscious response of ‘ ARGH, [Frustrating Human] is doing X to me’, I feel a sense of calm, composure, and most importantly, perspective.
So the next time someone snaps at you, hold onto the immediate desire to bite back and think ‘Perhaps they’ve had a bad morning’. Now, this doesn’t always work (like in the case of the racist bus passenger) and quite rightly so! I aren’t a buddhist monk on a zen path to enlightenment. Some things can’t be rationalised or excused, and some things don’t deserve to be. At the very least you buy the brain a valuable few seconds, and this allows any response to become a conscious reaction. Of course, you’ll still resort to the ‘default setting’ on occasion, but if this happens - at least you know that your response was a deserved reaction, and not a reflex.
Watch the video below. and welcome to the cult of David Foster Walla - Just kidding!