I was just at the Acme in Jenkintown, sent there to do some last-minute shopping required for Christmas Eve dinner. Sent there through a pissing rain, a rain with the added insult of being a glorious snowstorm ten degrees too warm. The Acme was crowded, frantic. I was able to locate the odds and ends on my list, and then parked myself in a checkout line, one of many cows in the corral.
It was then that I thought of David Foster Wallace.
Wallace was a writer of enormous talent and intelligence who killed himself in 2008 as a result of chronic depression. I am not an expert on his life or his work. He has lodged himself in my soul for two reasons: his tragic demise, and a famous commencement address he gave two years before he died. Speaking to an audience at Kenyon College, he takes a crack at the old chestnut: what is a liberal arts education for? “You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship,” he tells his audience, towards the end of this extraordinary speech.
But before then, he describes a trip to a supermarket, much like the one I had a couple of hours ago. In brilliant and entertaining style, he challenges us to become aware of our “default setting” – the way we perceive what’s in front of us, the way we interpret our own experience, the way we pass judgments and opinions without even realizing it. This passage in this speech is a call to outrageous empathy:
. . . 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.
And I am reminded of another “fat lady” described some 50 years before Wallace wrote his address, this one by J.D. Salinger from his novel Franny and Zooey. I have used the section this passage is from as an audition monologue for many years:
I remember about the fifth time I went on “Wise Child”. I started whining right before the broadcast. Seymore’d told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door, I was furious. The studio audience were morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were all morons and I just god damn well wasn’t going to shine my shoes for any of them. He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady. I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but he had a very Seymore look on his face, so I did it. I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I went on the air. This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on the porch all day swatting flies, with the radio going full blast from morn till night. I figured the heat was terrible, she probably had cancer and – I don’t know. But I’ll tell you a secret, are you listening? There isn’t anyone out there that isn’t Seymore’s Fat Lady. There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymore’s Fat Lady, don’t you know that yet? And don’t you know – don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? Ah, Buddy. Ah, Buddy. It’s Christ himself. Christ himself, Buddy.
So this post borrows wisdom and brilliance from two writers far greater than I. I share it with you in this season of Advent, in case you get caught in a supermarket, or some other real-life experience, and are able to notice your default setting. Wallace tells you you have a choice – to open yourself to the sacredness of everyday experience, and the potential nobility of all human beings. Salinger invites you into the same sacred landscape, suggesting that the one who suffers, who bears our scorn and even contempt, that one is the messiah, the savior, the one we are called upon to serve.
It’s been a hell of a year for me. In my middle age I am glad to say that the words of dead writers are every bit as real a remedy as a prescription drug, a recovery group, or a prayer. May we all have the grace to forgive, to let go, and to choose to pay attention what has heart and meaning.