Tonight I learned that a writer whose work I admired from a distance but hadn't read in a few years died of cancer in 2007. She wasn't a public figure on a large scale, so none of my family or friends knew of her death or even that I was a fan of her work, and I'd never been in touch with her. But the illusory sense that a reader has of "knowing" an author gave her passing a personal dimension for me, perhaps in part because it was such a surprise.
And this reminded me of another recent and surprising writer's death, the suicide of David Foster Wallace on September 12, 2008. I lacked the patience for Wallace's sprawling, endlessly footnoted novels--a flaw in me, not in his work--but I found those same qualities compelling in his stories and nonfiction. I knew little about him personally, but the persona that emerged from his work, particularly his essays--which covered every topic imaginable, sometimes in a single piece--was wise and humane, all too aware of our culture's flaws but also aware that each day flawed individuals were doing their best to make it better.
Shortly after Wallace's death, the Wall Street Journal published an essay adapted from a commencement address he gave at Kenyon College in 2005. I encourage you to read it all, but these two paragraphs near the end convey his message clearly:
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.
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. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the 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 to be lords of our own 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. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race" -- the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
It is hard to take advice on how to live a good life from a man who chose to end his, and I don't simply mean that it's difficult--I mean that it's painful, because these words strike me as so true, so fundamentally right that I can't believe that they lacked the power to save the life of the man who wrote them.
I've read this essay many times, and each time I still feel a unique sense of grief and anger and terror and hope. The grief is for Wallace, and the anger is for the fate that left such a talented man so tormented. The terror and hope are for me; I'm terrified that I'll never transcend my own petty gods, the unworthy objects of my worship--and I'm hopeful that I will, that I'll find freedom in attention and awareness and discipline and effort, in caring and sacrifice for others, in consciousness.
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