Operating Outside of Your Default Mode

“If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting [meaning, in short, the setting that puts yourself at the center of the universe], then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”

  • David Foster Wallace from a commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College in 2005.

Wallace hit squarely on the notion of what a life worth living is really all about in his commencement speech, and it is so unfortunate that he committed suicide. Trying to figure out why he killed himself is a futile exercise. Whatever demons possessed him obviously won over.

He also talked about freedom in this speech, saying that “the really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”

I tend to believe that is the true essence of a life worth living?

Think about it. If you operated outside of your typical default setting and implemented an increase in helping others, what would happen?

Nothing in the over-abundance of meaningless societal influences would have any kind of consequence. You’d be operating outside of the selfish default mode, free of the customarily fake self and socially-imposed anxieties that most humans experience.  You’d be happier and freer.

But it is hard to do this – to become fully Mother Teresa-like. To take such a plunge takes courage that most of us do not have. But we should respect those who do follow such a path and support them and honor them way beyond what our society so unfortunately honors in the meaningless realms of consumerism, money and materialism.

This thought pattern can be superimposed on today’s media – they are operating under a default setting that is truly a false representation of what is the important kind of freedom that Wallace talked about. That is why we see people in myriad headlines and broadcasts who espouse hate and fear instead of promoting what truly matters – the people who sacrifice for others in “myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”  These kinds of stories are typically reserved for the end of most news broadcasts where they highlight a good Samaritan or feel-good story.

What if the media reversed this – featuring Good Samaritan stories as the main news with all the other vitriol occupying only a very small portion of the news at the end? We’d probably be much better off. More people might follow the example of goodness more frequently espoused over the waves, and we’d all benefit from it.


  1. Thanks for highlighting Wallace and this commencement address. It was well worth reading in its entirety especially because Wallace wasn’t presenting some polished and complete critique of modern culture but was instead struggling right on the commencement stage to puzzle out how we can struggle against the “default mode” that strangles our humanity.

    How can something that’s “default” to humans in modern capitalist, technocratic society conflict fundamentally with our humanity? Wallace explores it a little here:

    “And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on
    your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money
    and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration
    and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed
    these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort
    and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized
    kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.”

    I’d argue that “not discourage” is really “creates and embeds.” It’s been over a hundred years since scientists began to get a lot more sophisticated about how to manipulate people, long enough for billions upon billions to be spent annually by governments and corporations to mold our defaults into what serves their interests, not the needs of our humanity, our fellow humans or the nature of which we are a part. A media that leads with what bleeds is not just doing it for ratings. They’re shaping our default in the direction of fear of our neighbors, helping to produce the isolation that so haunts Wallace and reducing the likelihood that we’ll chance talking to the person in the line in front of us because that’s a step toward self-organization, a concept that terrifies the elites who feel it their prerogative to make all our decisions for us..

    Wallace’s call to exert some choice and control of our own in the face of this constant manipulation empowered to greater and greater effectiveness through “advances” in technology is much more than just “learning how to think.” It’s an invitation to rebellion against a sick culture that strives to turn us into puppets stripped of our essential humanity.

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