I’ve only read writer David Foster Wallace around the edges, mostly in newspaper articles and book extracts, but the tributes published in the wake of his recent suicide, at age 46, have made me want to hear more. The Wall Street Journal has published a version of a Kenyon College commencement speech he gave in 2005 that is really mind-bending in its simple power. In it, he decries what he calls “default-setting” thinking, in which we place ourselves at the center of the universe and therefore at odds with just about everyone and everything else:
[I]f you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know you have other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, loud, slow, consumer-hell-type situation as not only meaningful but sacred, on fire with the same force that lit the stars — compassion, love, the sub-surface unity of all things. Not that that mystical stuff’s necessarily true: The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…
Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. [Emphasis mine.]
If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings.
We’re now harvesting the grapes of wrath for a decade or more of worshipping money and power on an unprecedented level, and the entire nation is in danger of being “eaten alive” by it. And the saviors who are coming forward sound suspiciously like the charlatans who got us in this mess in the first place.
Wallace knows, or knew. He knew that, in light of such huge forces over which we have so little influence, we have only our personal freedom to exercise:
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. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
That “infinite thing” we have lost may be our very selves, or our futures, or our children’s futures.
Update: Wallace’s family talks about his last days.