When Does Life Begin?

It is my firm belief that this question is one of the most important discussions that students rarely have. The question of when life begins affects all of us in very real and material ways. This is not a piece about being pro-choice or pro-life, but is in a different spectrum entirely. What I am concerned with, at least in this context, is when adult life begins, and why so many students  are unsure.

At the bottom of the page you will find a video of the best speech I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. Author David Foster Wallace describes in this speech his views on living a conscious and compassionate life.allace uses his considerable intellect and style to illustrate the difficulties of adult life to the 2005 Graduating Class of Kenyon College. He concludes his talk with the following:

"It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now."

I find myself agreeing with every observation and point he stresses, except for the last. Given that this talk was given to graduating students, does life start 'now'? It may very well be a simple oratory convention to end a speech on such an important and immediate note, but I believe the thought that adult life begins at Graduation to be misleading. It illustrates a trend that I continue to find apparent during my time in the educational system, where students aged 16 and over consider school to be a prologue to what will be their eventual life. 

What many of us fail to consider is that adult life does not have an arbitrary beginning. It does not begin upon graduation, nor does it start on any particular birthday, and I believe the thought that school places the student in a state of limbo stalls our development. As Wallace states, school is about more than what you learn, or even about teaching you how to think, but more about what to think about. Yet why do so many students look back after 4 years of college or secondary school and find that their responsibility and outlook have stagnated?

This is not to say that character doesn't change as a result of school and social interaction. It is very clear that there is a large amount of development, especially during high school. What I wish to illustrate is that deeper priorities, such as how we spend our money, how we enact social change and what we consider worthwhile interests tend to stay stable during our time in school. I find that too many of us leave school only to find that for others, life has already begun. This sudden realization, that change beginning at graduation leaves us far behind others that take this educational period to become more 'conscious', is disheartening. Too often do people wait for life to begin without realizing that life is not passive.

his passive/active divide accurately describes many issues as they appear to me. The absence of meaningful progression into what David Foster Wallace calls 'consciousness' is caused by a belief in life as a passive force. It is the deep rooted belief that life is something that happens to you. I suggest an alternative view: life is opportunity. Instead of waiting for life to begin, we can act, and choose to be conscious in adult life. This view means taking initiative to invest our time and resources, however meager, in causes and outlets that we deem worthwhile. It also means having honest and difficult conversations with ourselves about what 'worthwhile' really means. By choosing this view, instead of being awakened on Graduation day, the student can be strengthened in the habits they have been forming over time: resolve, responsibility, and consciousness.

elow is the speech given by David Foster Wallace, which I encourage everyone to listen to. It is given in two parts, the first of which can be found here:


Duncan FieldComment