David Foster Wallace

John DehlinMormon 3 Comments

Totally worth the read if you haven’t read it before.


It’s a commencement speech given a few years back by a famously gifted author (who has since taken his own life).  His name is David Foster Walalce.

My favorite part:

“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.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. 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 weird but 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 the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable 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 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 grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re 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 so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and 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 all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre 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 talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”

Comments 3

  1. How disappointing, Batman.

    Wallace says there is no such thing as atheism, but then his “point” is disappointing.

    The question is not if people believe in something — for everyone does — but whether certain things deserve the right to be called “gods” or whether “belief” need be elevated to the status of “worship.” And these are where the answer is “no.” Even making a minimal definition of god as something “supernatural,” you don’t *need* to worship any such thing like that. And the fact that most definitions include other added things (omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent, universal, whatever) makes the case even less than one *needs* to believe in such a thing.

    Again, much of this post only is problematic because people “worshipped” these various objects. This worship represents an unbending excess in belief…so the “worship” was the part that was problematic.

    We have the same problem with the “hero” post earlier…why elevate people to heros? Why treat anyone as a hero? Do you even NEED a hero?

    From the rest of his article, I guess I would question: so we have this choice…but why choose something like he suggests…when this too is a kind of laziness? We are simply choosing to believe in something supernatural or eternal or inviolable or something like that. I certainly agree that we should move beyond the “defaults” (and I agree with his later points — it isn’t about morality or life after death or dogma or religion — it’s about life before death), but I think people still give too much credence to certain things.

  2. Yes, there is such a thing as atheism. David Foster Wallace uses the totally scary code word “atheism” as opposite the sweet benign word “belief.” But belief, for DFW does not mean belief in God, rather, it means what we find most important–power, money, things; not a interventionist diety; certainly there is no hint of the supernatural in the speech that I read. Wallace is just extending the meaning of belief, like silly putty, until it breaks. Belive in something, he says; but the something is rooted in the dirty world we can clutch. If the speech has a thesis it is this sentence: “The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death. The speech says live now, it’s all there is. Perhaps you should recommend a different speech.

  3. on the other hand, djinn,

    DFW (haha, that sounds like Dallas Fort Worth, I’m easy amused) does point out that we need to avoid certain things — most importantly, “power, money, things.” Because if you worship these things, you will come up short. If you worship money, you’ll never have enough. If you worship beauty, you will never be beautiful enough. If you worship power, you will be too weak.

    So he wants something that transcends these temporal things…and I’m thinking he wants whatever that is to be something supernatural or spiritually transcendent. Even as he puts, “This is about life before death,” I think he’s making it an argument that the supernatural/transcendent shouldn’t just be stuff we worry about “after death.” but stuff we put our eyes on now.

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