What we can learn from a person who committed suicide
On September the 12th, David Foster Wallace killed himself with a shotgun. On May 21st of 2005 he served Kenyon college a graduation speech humbly demonstrating the virility of his mind. The long list of novels with their specious footnoting and sculptured prose present the contemporary middle class lifestyle as unfolding complexities and prods us towards questions about perception, identity and society. Remaining a renegade to apathy and the alcoholic misogynist literary predecessors revered in ‘cool’ literary circles are rebels. Reading his speech again I was elated to find simple, humble meaning again. In a wake-up-existential crisis manner, the Kenyon address delivers fresh air into daily regime and was helpful to remember what the hell is water?
“It’s the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.”
I open the window, the exterior is a stomach of painful sound, a moto pulls up behind a bus and jerks a BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEP, at 7:00am, my neighbour trudges out of their door yanking the leash of a yapping little rat they call dog and my gaze turns to dry mint leaves. I open another window and I see an ad blocker count of 17, video platforms and blog sites. When I’m conscious, I see a growing plant and useful content designed to expand my thoughts and stimulate ideas, when the world spins around me, I scorn the neighbours and watch youtube videos.
Wallace models the shared mortal attitude, complaints and loathing of humanity can routinely pass through our minds. We choose how we frame the mundane and it’s a choice to be automatic predictable machines and see the crowd impinging on our important lives. The convenience of necessities ensures many of us look to satisfy our immediate wants and we grow impatience and if I don’t pivot for one moment, see another perspective, I would believe life was a war.
I’ve chosen to see problems as opportunities, they’re conundrums, not black holes, they’re hurdles not obstacles. I could list various analogies and would never achieve the clarity and sincerity of Wallace’s observation: humanity isn’t as great as it claims in the movies.
“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”.
Distraction. Our cyber life has been discussed as the attention economy and although it appears as a trendy way of vaguely referring to virtual consumption it’s apt to realise meaningless clicks and actions are counterproductive to overall social improvement. We’re empowering a few people to manipulate and exploit human nature, the need for immediate gratification has a surplus of outlets and these attention seeking platforms and software centralise our knowledge and narrow our worldview. Congruently, Sam Cubit argues in his “against connectivity”, the attention economy makes consumption a job.
As I choose to share my unpaid creation to the platform. I give my attention, I share my “work” and compete for the attention of other users, creators and labourers. The background hum of unwilling conformance predates the attention economy and online communities have their drawbacks and benefits. Anything trending won’t make universal access to healthcare and educational institutes. Technological innovation offers a wormhole of opportunity to loose ourself values and shared goals. It seems absurd we pursue consumerist gratification while our leaders are sneaking behind our backs and violating human rights. They’re public servants and I don’t believe they’re doing their job.
My default settings function the best when I’m working late and I can’t finish. In these meltdown moments every new story is just another apocalypse, a sitcom of dunces and I click away and ‘don’t stop, ’til you get enough’.
2 Theory in practice
“My college education enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what’s going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what’s going on inside me”.
We’re just tools in a giant machine. Our desires are made, bought and sold without consent, we’re powerless to the social eye controlling our thoughts through the mere suggestion. Or as Foucault’s panopticon jail system prescribes ; “constant observation acted as a control mechanism; a consciousness of constant surveillance is internalised”. I used to think about the panopticon when using google search engine but if I read every article outlining the company’s waning transparency, I would lose a lot of time to wandering thoughts. I’ve had to silence these incessant questions of privacy and prioritise for now, I want access so must negotiate boundaries.
Academic theory pruned my conceptual framework and cultivated ideas, stimulated hunger for thought. After graduation I recall a sense of loss, I was losing the space to paw over theories and consider issues in essay form, I tried to enter regular conversation and became enraged with hearsay and blatant prejudice. Now I choose my debates, I allow some to continue with their extremism, recognise personal biases and huddle in reflection.
Wallace points ustowards using our emotional self and subjectivity as a guide rather than relying on the shadows of written wisdom, we might be more compelled to speak about our values and consider them more important than who’s right…
3-You worship your God… yourself
“Because here’s something else that’s 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.”
I’m devout and dedicated to my passions. I feel foolish for being hopeful, Ishmael the sea-captain would offer me a drink, tell me of men, caves, immortal catdog beings and my treasures are worthless. Fervour and zeal for life passions are mighty, and our beliefs are equally as important as ancient stories passed down through tradition. Wallace’s words invite me to frame my passions as tools to endure reality and create a sense of purpose. Being among numerous godless organisms, belief and the power to believe satisfies any ideological need.
Throughout the speech free-will and choice fuel his philosophical inquiry and as a worshipper of the suspension of disbelief and human expression, I wonder if given the choice would people choose to repeat a sacred ritual? Is it a choice that comes from a personal belief in an immortal creator or from observing family members and loved ones practice symbolic acts in private spaces.
Depression is not the same as experiencing discomfort and disappointment in routine and I don’t know Wallace or his community so I refer to his empowering speech from solemn respect. Suicide is a sad way to begin this thought, but I read “this is water” speech after Wallace’s death. Despite internal strife he still wanted to share and offer others comforting thoughts about common tribulations, his thoughts hold meaning for the mass. Wallace takes no authoritative ground and asks the person to listen without judgement and shows us why honesty will help us gulp down reality.
“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.”