A week or so ago, I had occasion to revisit the 2005 commencement speech given by the writer David Foster Wallace to the graduating class of Kenyon College, which has since been published as a book, transformed into an online video, and generally been commercialized in a way that Wallace would have hated. The speech itself (often called "This Is Water"), however, remains poignant and true. It is, in fact, perhaps the purest distillation of my personal philosophy as exists outside of my own brain. It encapsulates much of how I have come to see the world. I think that the speech brilliantly fuses simplicity and significance. And.
David Foster Wallace was a deeply flawed and problematic person. He writes brilliantly and insightfully about the problem of toxic masculinity, before that term was well known or understood. He was a writer of depth and humanity, acutely aware of his own insecurities and how to use that knowledge to create connection with his readers. He was open and vulnerable, and talked about his own struggles with mental illness.
And at the same time he was doing all these things he was an abusive and controlling boyfriend, one that would attack and stalk his former partner (and brilliant writer herself) Mary Karr. He was a demeaning and imperious colleague, a distant teacher, and a remote friend. He was an alcoholic, prone to depression and anger, and suffered from suicidal ideations.
For all his prodigious talent and insight, David Foster Wallace was also an abusive asshole.
In one of the great ironies of this commencement address, Wallace exhorts his listeners to engage in the challenging work of truly seeing the complexities of the world and the people in it, less they become overwhelmed with despair and turn to suicide, the exact battle that he would lose some three years after giving this speech.
So, what then do I do with this speech? With this near perfect explanation of my own worldview? How do I reconcile it with the person who gave it voice? And - even more difficult - how do I come to terms with the fact that many of the challenges that Wallace faced are the exact same demons I have faced in my own life?
What do we do with the parts of ourselves and our histories that are beautiful and precious but also challenging and scary and hard? What do we do with the people, places, and situations that shaped us and molded us, and which have proven to be toxic? What do we do with the trauma that created us? That made us who we are?
What do we do with our beautiful monsters?
Veteran's Day is the one day of the year where I don't mind people thanking me for my service. It is, after all, why the day exists.
Veteran’s Day is about acknowledging and appreciating all who have served in the Armed Forces of the United States. So share the love. Give all the thanks.
There are no rules (like Memorial Day). There are no minefields to navigate. Just thank a vet.
My service is one of my beautiful monsters. I would not be who I am without it. My 12 years in the Army and time in Iraq and Afghanistan shaped every part of who I am. It molded my values, shaped my character, provided my trajectory. I made the best friends that it is possible to have. I learned what care and love and sacrifice really look like.
And. My service shaped every part of who I am. It gave me a brain injury and PTSD and made childhood trauma a lifelong affliction. My service gave me many positive things. It also almost took my life more times than I can count - while I was in the Army and in the 14 years since. I am proud to be a veteran. I am proud of my service. And I also carry scars that won't heal, no matter how much time passes. Some of those friends - people I literally risked my life for - don't talk to me anymore. I caused a lot of that.
A lot of people who didn't know me then have a hard time believing it when I say it, but I was a real asshole for a real long time. Now I try every day to make the world around me better.
And both of those parts of me came from my service.
Nothing is just one thing.
Nothing is purely good or purely bad. David Foster Wallace was more than the worst thing he ever did. And he is less than the best thing he ever wrote. So am I. So are you.
The truth is that we are the beautiful monsters. We are capable of love and hate, care and harm. We create life, we sow the seeds of death. Human beings are complicated and complex and the situations in which we find ourselves are too.
In the end, we must make peace with the complexity. We must live in the liminal spaces that exist between abstractions like "good" and "bad." We must find a separate peace and know that flaws don't destroy beauty.
They reveal it.
May it ever be so.
I hope that you have a wonderful Veteran's Day. Thank the people in your life that served. The best thing that we can do for others (including vets) is see them in their fullness - in their complex humanness - and lean into it.
To those who want to thank me for my service... I may not be able to respond to everyone individually. So let me say to everyone now… you’re welcome. You were worth it.
Over the next couple of months, the posting schedule for Combat Snuggles will be random and in flux. I am prioritizing a couple of other projects right now. There should be a more predictable schedule after the holidays. Please know that even if I am not in your inbox every week, I am still thinking about you.
I appreciate your support. Thanks for reading.
Happy Veteran's Day y'all.
Keep pounding the rock.