…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 along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the 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.
This kind of freedom has much to recommend it.
But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying.
The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.
That is real freedom.
That is being taught how to think.
The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the ‘rat-race’–the constant, gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
–David Foster Wallace (1962-2008)
“This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life”, p.115-123
(A college commencement address delivered in 2005)
David Foster Wallace is not my usual reading fare. His language is splattered with words not in my vocabulary. He’s long-winded. ( You haven’t imagined what this means till you have seen his explanatory footnotes! ) And despite our being born just one month apart and in the same country, we have lived in different worlds. But his intense way of seeing and saying has given him a voice that pierces through the facades of modern culture. His writing intrigues me. Sadly, Wallace was tortured with severe depression for much of his life and seemed unable to follow through with the advice he delivered in this particular address. He committed suicide just three years after it was spoken. As he acknowledged, ‘It is unimaginably hard to do this–to live consciously, adultly, day in and day out…I wish you way more than luck.’
I wish for him and his readers, Jesus the Christ, without whom our efforts to love truly and to escape the self-centric mode we were born in are quite hopeless.
I have read and enjoyed this month some of Wallace’s shorter works…
“A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (1995)–a humorous but sobering essay describing a cruise ship vacation, and also the human condition when undistracted by indulgence
“The Nature of the Fun” (1998)–an essay on the challenges of being a fiction writer
“The Planet Trillaphon as It Stands in Relation to the Bad Thing” (1984)–an autobiographical piece of fiction describing the ‘Bad Thing’, depression.
I guess what I appreciate about Wallace’s writing is its incredible ability to make me imagine just what the experience he’s describing is like. It increases my ability to empathize with people beyond my own ‘world’ of experience. In sharing his own tortured soul he draws me out of my own self-centricity. This is a good thing!