Eden M. Kennedy

The Trick is Keeping the Truth Up-Front

07.07.09 | 28 Comments

Thanks for all your comments last week — despite the fact that my question (“how the fuck are you people finding time to read?”) was fundamentally rhetorical, your descriptions of how you’re fitting Infinite Jest into your lives were fascinating. I am still behind, but thanks to a weekend spent back and forth from LAX to DEN combined with a few late nights using IJ to stave off the dread before my mother’s funeral, I got well past page 100, as well as my despair at ever catching up.

Funerals are funny things. I’ve found getting through them, or any difficult emotional event, without losing your shit requires a shift in attention. If I stayed in my head and let memories of my mother and all her kindnesses take over my thoughts, the result was miserable weeping. If instead I stayed in the present — fussy baby being soothed by his grandmother, vaguely sexy tortured Christ over the altar, my brother saying things about my mother that were absolutely untrue — I found that (a) I wasn’t horrified to be in church, and (b) I could fully participate in the moment.

Here’s a small portion of David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005.

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. Think of the old cliché about “the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.” This, like many clichés, so lame and unexciting on the surface, actually expresses a great and terrible truth. It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in the head. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger. And I submit that this is what the real, no-bull- value of your liberal-arts education is supposed to be about: How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.

He goes on the describe a trip to the grocery store after a long day at work — the sort of adult experience most college graduates don’t include in their glossy visions of the future — as an exercise in choices. You can stand in line, tired, starving, and frustrated as shit, and wonder why all these ridiculous, bovine jerks are standing between you and a hot meal at home, or you can remember that everyone has their own heroic battles to fight, and cut them some slack.

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. 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.

The more I read of this guy, the more I like him, and the sorrier I am that he’s dead.