Monday, October 6, 2008

Infinite Quest

I've only read a smattering of David Foster Wallace's short stories and essays, but he is one of my husband's favorite authors. So when he killed himself a few weeks ago, we took notice.

In the days after his death, I was moved to read this piece, adapted from a 2006 commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College. In it, Foster Wallace ruminated on the curse of self-centeredness, of seeing everything through the lens of me, me, me. Here is a section of the speech:

As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about "teaching you how to think" is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: "Learning how to think" really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

There is a beautiful section of the speech in which Foster Wallace transforms a soul-draining shopping experience at the grocery store into a rare opportunity for human empathy and understanding. He does this simply by stepping outside of himself, and giving people the benefit of the doubt. Just as we would want people to do for us.

You should read the whole thing if you have the time. I don't think you'll regret it.

I've been thinking a lot about this speech in the last few weeks. Returning to it often. Trying to put it into practice. One small example : my family was at Donato's the other evening, and I was impatient because the cashier was taking too long to wait on me. Me, me, me. But I switched off that petty, inner outrage, and saw myself for what I was : one person in a crowded roomful of fellow people, all of whom were either working hard, or wanting pizza, too. It was so easy. All it took was awareness, and the tiniest adjustment in attitude. And I felt the better for it.

Of course, it isn't always so easy. It wasn't for Foster Wallace. He could not, at some point, escape the huge, cold clutch of his own mind. But I have no doubt that he tried. That he believed in these words. And that he wanted those kids at Kenyon to try, too.

I'll leave you with a few more of his words from that day:

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.

[Photo courtesy of Keith Bedford/Getty Images]


Aine said...

I will always be grateful to my mother for teaching me from the time I could talk to give people "the benefit of the doubt." I remember being confused when adults would get so stressed and frustrated and act out of their self-centeredness. Then I found myself acting that way as life roles and stresses were piled on me. Wallace is so right-- freedom and peace are just a matter of awareness of thought.

Thanks for this post, Sarah! I'm feeling more and more centered each day....

Charles Gramlich said...

Truly excellent words. I'm going to look this talk up and read the whole thing. I have to say I've not heard of this fellow but he certainly seems to have some great points to make. I'm curious as to why he killed himself.

Anonymous said...

Maybe those little sacrifices are not truly sacrifices at all. Take fitness, for example. You can exercise your way straight past fitness and ruin your health, all the while believing that more, more, more is better.

Thanks for remind us about balance. By spreading happiness and caring and effort wider, all the more positive energy will flow back to us.

(And I do want to read that speech.)

*~*{Sameera}*~* said...

Such talent gone wasted so early.May he RIP.

Scott said...

Philsophically he sounds a bit like Eckhardt Tolle. Sad that life got the better of him. Coming from the computer field, my college degree taught me how to learn new technologies, and I have oft quoted the same ideom that Foster did in your posted snippet. Upon first read I thought he was refuting it, but I see now that he was elaborating.

Sarah Hina said...

Aine, your mother offered great guidance for that natural empathy of yours. It's so easy to lose our way when life presses down on us, though.

I'm glad you've rediscovered that innate, positive perspective. :)

Charles, I can't really say why he killed himself. My husband read that this last year had been miserable for him, and he hadn't been able to work.

I'm glad that you're going to read the whole piece. I think it's worth it.

Jason, it's true that sacrificing for others, in moderation, has its rewards for us, too. It's striking that perfect balance that can be tricky. Probably because that line isn't static, but is constantly shifting from the wind of a million different factors.

Hopefully, we all continue to feel for it, though.

Sameera, it is a terrible blow to his family, and to literature. He will be missed.

Scott, I looked up Tolle and can see the similarities you found in terms of embracing the moment, and transcending one's ego. Thanks for pointing him out to me.

I'm glad you've incorporated some of this awareness and effort into your own life, too.

K.Lawson Gilbert said...

Isn't it sad? Some of the brightest among us burn out so quickly. He is in the sad company of so many other great writers who lived with depression and eventually committed suicide; Hart Crane, Ernest Hemingway, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, Wallace Stone just to name a few of the hundreds. I will look up that speech. The excerpts seem so word worthy.

Sarah Hina said...

K., it is sad that he couldn't climb out of his mind's darkness, but at least a man's death isn't the sum total of his life. All of the writers you mentioned have endured in our memories, perhaps due to their keen sensitivity and ability to translate the anguish and hard truths from their lives onto the page.

This is a small comfort, though. Someone (I can't remember who) once said that if given the chance to save a cat or a Rembrandt from a burning house, he hoped he'd pick the cat. Life and art are not truly comparable, after all.

Thanks so much for stopping by! I plan on visiting your blog in the future. :)

Vesper said...

I haven't heard of David Foster Wallace until I heard of his death. Then I started reading a bit about him and I was very impressed and very saddened at the same time.
I thank you for this post. The quote at the end is something to remember.
I was much more unforgiving when I was younger - now I'm much more inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt...