Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Wisdom from two DWs

Earlier this afternoon, Steven read me the bulk of the commencement speech that David Foster Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005, and it's just beautiful. The following excerpt, about how to see the tedium of adult life with fresh eyes, was exactly what I needed to hear, and it's as good an example as any of what he's up to:
But most days, if you're aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she's not usually like this. Maybe she's been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it's also not impossible. It just depends what you what to consider. If you're automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won't consider possibilities that aren't annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that's capital-T True is that you get to decide how you're gonna try to see it.
I recommend you read the whole thing. The fact that Wallace refers to suicide in the course of the speech makes it all the more poignant. (And if you haven't read the recent New Yorker article about Wallace, please do so.) I'm actually reminded, just now, of some lyrics I particularly like in Dar Williams' song "Mortal City":
He smiled and said, "Sometimes at night I walk out by the river,
The city's one big town, the water turns it upside down
People found this city because they love other people
They want their secretaries, they want their power lunches."
I've always loved that: the (unnamed) male character's willingness, his ability, to view seemingly soulless big-city realities as signs of people's love for others, their overwhelming desire to have them all around. Of course, this conceit has its payoff in another of the song's beautiful moments, when the female character tells him:
"I think I have a special kind of hearing tonight
I hear the neighbors upstairs
I hear my heart beating
I hear one thousand hearts beating at the hospital
And one thousand hearts by their bedsides waiting
Saying, 'That's my love in the white gown.'"
Williams' song is about the same kind of compassion Wallace discusses, the same goal of traveling outside your familiar perspective, received wisdom, and routine to find a more positive way to look at the world, including its maddening aspects. I only wish Wallace had been able to swing that when it really counted. As he says, it's damn hard. From my perspective, having wonderful friends and exercising my creativity are just two of many ways to fight back against the "day in, day out" repetition that can slowly turn you angry, small, and hollow -- already dead, as Wallace sees it.

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