David Foster Wallace and the practice of love

A few years back, I posted about David Foster Wallace. Having just (a bit behind the times, admittedly) listened to his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address, I was taken by his candour and sensitivity. Where is he now? I immediately began to search the internet. And then, of course, I remembered my first introduction to David Foster Wallace by a colleague, who told us that Wallace had committed suicide. A very bright light has been extinguished.

Last year, I published an essay in Church Life, which has just been re-issued on their new website. Reading it over again–because David Foster Wallace is so compelling–I am once again floored by his insight, wit, and sensitivity. I give thanks for his life, and grieve his tragic death all over again. Also, I give you the link to the essay, in case you want to know what David Foster Wallace implies about the practice of love in that commencement address now more than ten years old.

I know my readers are few and my followers even fewer. I give thanks for all of you today.

Deo gratias.

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How to buy happiness

I still miss David Foster Wallace. I wish he were still around to say the sorts of things he said in his commencement address at Kenyon College. Fortunately, some researchers are finding evidence to support Wallace’s claims about the dangers of self-centeredness. This is of particular interest to me just now because both of my sons are overawed by the richest men in the world. Wealth, they seem to think, makes people important, worthy of our interest, and–most of all–happy. The evidence, described in an article in The Week (excerpted from an article by Michael Lewis published in The New Republic), suggests otherwise.

Not only does more money fail to increase your happiness, it seems to infect your soul. The studies found a correlation between selfish acts and even dishonesty (in the service of gain) and wealth. My 11-year-old son, who dreams of being a world-class soccer player (and compensated accordingly), listened as I read the first several paragraphs of the article, and that’s saying something. He listened, because the article begins with a wonderful description of a tennis camp (really, you should read this article–it’s good, and it won’t take long) in which the lines were drawn not between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ but between the ‘givers’ and the ‘takers’.

You won’t be surprised to learn that in terms of happiness, the ‘givers’ are the ‘haves’ and the ‘takers’ are the ‘have-nots’–regardless of their net worth (and generalization extends only to those for whom net worth is an applicable category). In fact–and this is the lesson I took away from the article–the only way some extra money can make you happy is if you spend it on someone else. And there are plenty of opportunities to do that these days, so many opportunities that the whole word could become a happier place if we all were to treat our neighbors to a meal, or a tent, or whatever they need most urgently.

So, in a sense, money can buy happiness. You just can’t buy it for yourself.

the ordinary

I’ll tell you what my novitiate in the blogosphere has taught me: I’m ordinary. My experience is just human, and my reflection on that experience is just as human. I knew that, or at least I sort of knew that. And I don’t even really have anything peculiar to say about it. As Matt Jones put it so eloquently today, ‘being human is crazy.’ And it’s not easy. My favorite David Foster Wallace sentence (from the commencement address I blogged about a couple of weeks ago) is:

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 little unsexy ways every day.

Yep. And he didn’t even have children. The daily routine he describes in that commencement address doesn’t involve a 9-year-old shouting that it’s all your fault, or a 2-year-old clamoring ‘up! uppppyyyy!’ while you’re trying to peel carrots or help the 6-year-old with his reading. I listened to his address again while my girls were in the tub, and heard this sentence in the middle of the dreaded hair-washing, I think. Definitely having an unsexy moment, there.

My real hero, though, isn’t David Foster Wallace, as insightful as he was, God rest his soul. More than just about anyone, I admire Jean Vanier. Although he’s a renowned person now, having been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, among other things, he didn’t set out to create an international network. L’Arche was his home, and he shared it–at the beginning–with two young men who required unsexy sacrifices every day. I don’t admire him because he was successful, or because he’s a wise and caring person. I admire him because it has always been about being faithful to the teachings of Jesus.

Jean Vanier makes the ordinary radiant with the love of God. Would that I had an ounce of his spirit of tenderness and faithfulness. I want to escape the ordinary, the ‘crazy’ that is being human every day. But freedom and faithfulness are not in the heroic acts–or the brilliant and widely-read books-that make me say, ‘wow’. Nope. Freedom–the ‘most precious’ freedom–and faithfulness are in the power to stay, to stay calm…not to shout back at the 9-year-old or lose patience with the 2-year-old, but to persevere in tenderness.

That’s the hard, hard work of being ordinary. I’m glad I am not alone in doing it.

David Foster Wallace, commencement address to the graduating class at Kenyon College (2005)

Video

I listened. Somehow I missed this on the first go-round, probably because at the time I was madly trying to finish a dissertation while being the best possible mom to my two little ones. And I was going through a very dark patch. So my awareness of David Foster Wallace has been dawning over the last couple of months.

He had my full attention. I have about a million things I should be doing, but I stopped, and listened. After the conclusion of the speech, I googled him (as you do) to refresh my memory, and connected the dots. Oh, this is that guy. Wait, he committed suicide? I knew that. Right.

But I wasn’t nearly as sad when I first heard it.