lifestyles


I’m nearing the end of my series of posts about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. As I read the book I was most interested in what DFW had to say about the struggles we in present-day America have with living meaningful and genuine lives. The first four posts provide some thoughts about what I take to be Wallace’s portrayal of those struggles. This post and the next one will focus on what he offers that might provide help.

As I noted earlier, one place that Wallace thinks provides assistance is in recovery programs such as AA and NA. Wallace was himself an alcoholic and was quite familiar with the 12-Step model of treatment. As he describes the recovery program at Ennet House, a treatment facility, he both repeats some of AA’s standard dogma and offers his own observations about the nature of this approach to recovery and how it works to bring about change.

As discussed back in the first of my posts, IJ describes a world in which most people have strong desires that can gain control over their lives. Pursuit of these desires seems to promise a better life–not only a life of pleasure, but also escape from pain. Unfortunately, with time the pleasure fades and pain returns. One of the first things that must be done in treatment is to face the inevitability of pain:

“[T]hey tell you how it’ll all get better and better as you abstain and recover: they somehow omit to mention that the way it gets better and you get better is through pain…. At least this pain means you’re going somewhere, they say, instead of the repetitive gerbil-wheel of addictive pain.” (p. 446)

There will be pain associated with growth, but focusing on the pain to come is counterproductive. Instead, the emphasis is on living with the present moment’s pain. It’s the AA slogan “Take one day at a time” broken into even finer portions, as in Ennet House staff member Gately dealing with the pain of withdrawal from opioids:

“He had to build a wall around each second just to take it. The whole first two weeks of it are telescoped in his memory down to like one second–less: the space between two heartbeats.” (p. 860)

Accepting the pain and the need to participate in meetings and daily routines that are associated with recovery (though these are always offered as suggestions, not as requirements), the addict is encouraged not to look for the causes of his or her addiction, but simply to remember that they are indeed under the influence of that addiction:

“The Boston AA ‘In Here’ that protects against a return to ‘Out There’ is not about explaining what caused your disease. It’s about a goofily simple practical recipe for how to remember you’ve got the Disease day by day and how to treat the Disease day by day, how to keep the seductive ghost of a bliss long absconded from baiting you and hooking you and pulling you back Out and eating your heart raw and (if you’re lucky) eliminating your map for good. So no whys and wherefores allowed.” (p. 374)

Recovery–Keep Going to Meetings. Image from brickjest.com

The new residents often think the program is simplistic; they have trouble believing that it will work. The staff encourage them to put aside their doubts and simply do the things that the program recommends. One aspect of the program that many residents resist is turning  to God. The agnostics and atheists especially have trouble doing this. However, Wallace offers the following wry observation in the list of things that new Ennet House residents are likely to learn:

“That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there’s a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it’s interested in re you.” p. 205

Several months into his recovery, Gately has been praying every morning and evening–and has found it helps him maintain sobriety through the day. Nonetheless, speaking at an AA meeting, he admits he still has no sense of God:

“He says but when he tries to go beyond the very basic rote automatic get-me-through-this-day-please stuff, when he kneels at other times and prays or meditates or tries to achieve a Big-Picture spiritual understanding of a God as he can understand Him, he feels Nothing–not nothing but Nothing, an edgeless blankness that somehow feels worse than the sort of unconsidered atheism he Came In with.” p. 443

After the meeting, one of the attendees, a biker named Bob Death, tells him “the one about the fish.” Wallace told this story in his well-known 2005 Kenyon College commencement address. An old fish meets two young fish and greets them, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” As the two fish swim on, one turns to the other and asks, “What the f*** is water?” Gately listens,

“And his dreams late that night, after the Braintree/Bob Death Commitment, seem to set him under a sort of sea, at terrific depths, the water all around him silent and dim and the same temperature he is.” p. 449

For Wallace, God is like the sea, surrounding and supporting all of us, his/her very pervasiveness preventing us from recognizing his/her presence. Our growth towards wholeness doesn’t depend on believing in God so much as on acting as if we did. Practice matters, ideas mostly tend to trip us up rather than help.

So, then, some strategies that characters in IJ find helpful in living meaningful lives relatively free from addiction include accepting the pain, acquiring (but not analyzing) regular habits that interfere with unhealthy attachments, and putting trust in God, whether or not you believe his existence. I’ll reflect a bit more on the reasoning behind this approach to life in my final post on the book.

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In a previous post, I wrote about one theme David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, namely the desire many characters have to escape themselves. Social realities in the U.S. intensify this desire. DFW seems particularly interested in exploring aspects of American culture that interfere with living a healthy and authentic life. In the book, the most detailed critique of American culture is offered by a character from a rather different culture, albeit still North American. Rémy Marathe is from Quebec; he is an agent  (he’s actually a quadruple agent, when you sort out who he is betraying and pretending to betray) of the Wheelchair Assassins, a violent separatist group that is seeking to acquire the lethal “entertainment” named Infinite Jest V to use as a terrorist weapon. He complains to his contact Hugh Steeply, agent for the North American government’s Office of Unspecified Services, about the failure of Americans to live for any purpose larger than themselves:

“You U.S.A.’s do not seem to believe you may each choose what to die for. Love of a woman, the sexual, it bends back in on the self, makes you narrow, maybe crazy. Chose with care. Love of your nation, your country and people, it enlarges the heart. Something bigger that the self.” (p. 107)

He thinks that Americans “choose nothing over themselves to love, each one.” (p. 318) As a result, they are particularly susceptible to the lure of the lethal entertainment. They will “die for this chance to be fed to the death of pleasure with spoons, in their warm homes, alone, unmoving.” Exclusive self-love prepares us for self-indulgence, nothing more. The effect of the lethal entertainment on its viewers seems just a more intensified version of what the American entertainment industry does to all of us every day. When DFW wrote IJ, we were entertained mainly through television, VCR tapes, CDs, and DVDs. Now packaged entertainment also infects our laptops and cell phones, enticing us everywhere we look. It deadens us, it tempts us to give our lives to it, one cat video at a time.

And it isolates us. Though the characters in IJ are often physically present with each other, they mostly fail to forge meaningful connections. The pioneering developmental psychologist Jean Piaget coined the term “collective monologue” to describe the way in which young children talk to each other: though they take turns talking, each is carrying on an independent stream of speech, not listening to or responding to what the other is saying. Many of the conversations in IJ come close to being collective monologues–Hal and Orin, for example, or the residents of Ennet House with each other. Hal asks his Little Buddies (the younger students at E.T.A. that he mentors) “Even if we all live and eat and shower and play together, how can we keep from being 136 deeply alone people all jammed together?” (p. 112) The question can be asked more broadly: how can we keep our way of living from isolating us, even if we are sitting in the same restaurants or offices or living rooms with others? Hal thinks connection is possible because the students are united by common hardship, but this hypothesis isn’t borne out in the rest of the book.

Isolation is an issue at Ennet House as well. One of the things that residents are said to learn early in their stay is “That loneliness is not a function of solitude.” As with the E.T.A. students, they aren’t alone very much–they room together, go to meetings together, and spend almost all their time in each other’s company. There is little solitude, but a lot of loneliness.

Marathe and Steeply. Image from http://www.brickjest.com.

Marathe tells Steeply, “You are what you love.” Unlike what we desire, what we’re tempted by, or what intrudes into our lives, we have a choice about what we love. Marathe later tells Kate Gompart, a depressed Ennet House resident, what (or whom) he chose to love. As a young double amputee who belonged to a suppressed minority, he felt empty. Everything changed one day when he saw a woman about to be hit by a truck. He quickly rolled down the hill he was on, arriving just in time to sweep her out of the way.

“It was this frozen with the terror woman, she saved my life. For this saved my life. This moment broke my moribund chains, Katherine. In one instant and without thought I was allowed to choose something as more important than my thinking of my life. Her, she allowed this will without thinking. She with one blow broke the chains of the cage of pain at my half a body and nation.” p. 778

His betrayal of the Quebecois cause was for the sake of getting medical treatment for Gertraude, the woman he rescued who subsequently became his wife. He of course had told Steeply earlier that a nation was a sufficient cause to give oneself to, but a woman wasn’t. Thus he wasn’t living according to the ideals he espoused. Despite his own inconsistency, Marathe’s critique of the U.S. raises interesting questions that the rest of IJ explores in depth. Though Marathe’s views weren’t identical with those of DFW, I suspect that Wallace used Marathe to express concerns about American culture that he thought had some validity.

Most of us have felt at times that entertainment or social media is playing too big a role in our lives. Most of us have been halfhearted at best in our efforts to keep these forces in their proper place, though. St. Augustine talked about our disordered loves; for many of us, our love for our entertainments is disordered. Thus, it will never fully satisfy. Choose what you love, says Marathe. Then follow through and give your time only to that which is worthy of your love.

This isn’t a review, but a reflection. The movies that intrigue me do so because they explore questions like how we should live our lives, what makes for good (and bad) relationships, and how we come to be made whole or broken, saved or lost. I write about those movies to engage these and similar issues.

I recently saw “The Hero,” starring Sam Elliott as aging actor Lee Hayden. Lee had success early in his career but has been marking time ever since then. As he tells Charlotte (Laura Prepon), a woman barely older than his 34-year-old daughter who becomes his love interest, as a young man he starred in a movie that he is proud of. Since then he’s kept busy but hasn’t accomplished much. The opening scene shows what he has been doing; he records take after take of a commercial for barbecue sauce, “The perfect partner for your chicken.”

Lee checks with his agent regularly, hoping to be offered a movie script. Unfortunately none is forthcoming. Still, he yearns for one more chance at success. In his dreams, he often finds himself back in the movie for he was famous (also named “The Hero”), though when he returns there he is an old man. He’s divorced and has a strained relationship with Lucy, his daughter. He’s bungled things with Lucy; he’s been absent and inattentive. He feels badly about where things stand with her, but apparently not badly enough to change. He devotes his time and energies not to others but to smoking pot, often with Jeremy (Nick Offerman), a former acting buddy who is now his dealer.

Lee is stuck. However, two things happen that have the potential to change his life. First, he is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Second, he and Charlotte begin seeing each other. It’s not that the attentions of a woman can solve his problems, but the woman in this case has a somewhat different take on life than he does, and that opens him to new possibilities. One interaction between them goes something like this:

Lee: It’s kind of weird to be remembered for one part forty years ago.
Charlotte: Yeah, but it’s as close to immortality as most of us will get.

You’ve done better than you think, Charlotte seems to be saying. Don’t worry so much about your legacy. Live in the present rather than in the past or the future.

Here’s a conversation they have about their relationship, but also apparently about living one’s life:

Charlotte: So what do you want?
Lee: (uncomfortably) I don’t know.
Charlotte: Don’t think so hard about it, man.

Charlotte may give too little thought to what she’s doing with her life, living impulsively, profligately. Still, she’s a good corrective for Lee, who is paralyzed by his thoughts.

Why is the film called “The Hero?” Mary McCarthy wrote “We all live in suspense, from day to day, from hour to hour; in other words, we are the hero of our own story,” Ironically, Lee, the man called “The Hero,” has for decades avoided being the hero in his own life. He has evaded self-knowledge and the commitment to others required to develop and sustain relationships. His cancer diagnosis and Charlotte’s provocations are invitations to the hero’s journey (I’m thinking of Joseph Campbell’s description of the mythological hero who is called to adventure, resists, accepts the call, enters an unfamiliar world, undergoes an ordeal, and returns home with a reward).

Besides coming from cancer and Charlotte, Lee’s invitation to the hero’s journey also comes from within himself. The dreamscape that he enters when asleep has two recurring scenes. In the first, he is a cowboy who encounters a man hanging from a tree. In the second, he stands on the ocean shore, looking out toward the horizon. I take the first of these to be an intimation of his mortality. One approach to dream interpretation is to see everything in the dream as representing a part of the dreamer; in this case, the lynched man would represent him. The second scene, with the vastness of the ocean and the force of its waves, might represent all that is greater than Lee–the infinite, the eternal, the divine. Like Lee, we are prone to live selfish, constricted lives until we are confronted either by suffering and death or by that immensity that makes us feel tiny by comparison. Will we try to hide from what we’ve seen, or will we accept the invitation to venture out into it?

Lee reacts poorly at first. He can’t even manage to tell anyone he has cancer, though he tries. He avoids setting an appointment with the oncologist, not wanting to face his dire medical condition. During the last third of the film, he makes some progress, though I won’t give details here. Suffice it to say that, having for decades avoided being the hero of his own life, there’s only so much he can accomplish in the few days covered in the film. Lee may have accepted the call to heroism, but he hasn’t progressed very far in the journey.

I’ll close by describing the final scene in the film; this is something of a spoiler, so don’t read on if you would rather not know how it ends. Remember that in the first scene Lee was in a studio recording the soundtrack for a commercial. In the final scene, he is back in the same sound studio, recording a follow-up commercial for a new version of the same product. It seems that he has gotten exactly nowhere during the film. But is that so? In the opening scene, he appeared a little irritated having to repeat the same phrase over and over, a little contemptuous of what he was doing to earn a living. I may be reading too much into the final scene, but the irritation appears to be gone and he seems at peace even while doing something so prosaic. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to do something ordinary or banal again and again, perhaps bemused that life had come to this but more than anything just glad to be alive? May we all achieve that measure of contentment.

I recently read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. The hillbillies referenced in the title are white, working class Americans of Scots-Irish descent whose ancestors settled in Appalachia. Though raised in Appalachian culture, Vance didn’t grow up in Appalachia proper; a few decades before he was born his grandparents had migrated from Jackson, Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, attracted by the good-paying jobs at the steel plant there.

As with many other rust belt cities, the Middletown factory has been in decline for decades. The conventional explanation for the crisis among poor working class whites is economic: there aren’t enough good-paying jobs available. Vance, however, thinks that “this story of economic insecurity is, at best, incomplete.” (p. 13; all page numbers are from the large-print edition) He draws on the example of a summer job he had at a tile distribution center in Middleville. Though the work was stable and the pay was decent, the managers couldn’t find minimally reliable workers to fill open positions. Why the lack of decent workers in an economically depressed community? Vance wrote his book in order to explore “what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.” (p. 16)

In what follows, I’m not going to summarize Vance’s memoir; for those looking for such a summary, consider reading the review in the Washington Post. I’m more interested in exploring one aspect of the crisis, namely the difficulty those from working class Appalachia seem to have in finding a suitable master narrative.

The term ‘master narrative’ comes from narrative psychology (which is described well in this article), a branch of psychology which holds that our identities consist largely of the life stories we construct. Master narratives are like blueprints or templates we follow in constructing our life stories (and thus, in constructing our lives). Cultures typically provide one or more master narratives that a young member of that culture can use to structure her self-concept and guide her choices. In my case, I followed the master narrative that I had seen demonstrated by my father and grandfather: diligent at school, then a hard worker; family oriented; my meaning and purpose found in the Christian faith. Though the broad strokes of our enacted narratives were similar, there were differences in the details: unlike them, my story didn’t include service to my country as a citizen-soldier but did include a commitment to the intellect and life of the mind that wasn’t important to them. Neither they nor I authored the template we used for thinking about ourselves or living our lives; all the elements were drawn from our cultural setting.

So how have the working class poor lost a master narrative? Vance’s story includes numerous ways in which the master narrative that once held sway lost its relevance. For example, he tells of his grandmother (“Memaw”) and her brothers reacting violently towards anyone who threatened family possessions or honor–Memaw at twelve shooting a man who stole the family’s cow, for example, or Uncle Teabury making a man who insulted his sister eat her underpants. Vance reflects, “…these were classic good and evil stories, and my people were on the right side. My people were extreme, but extreme in the service of something–defending a sister’s honor or ensuring that a criminal paid for his crimes.” (p. 30) Defending personal and family honor was a component of their master narrative.

But what happens when you work in a factory and are expected to let minor slights to your honor go by rather than disrupt the workplace? Even worse, what happens if what threatens your honor is not some jerk talking about your sister but elites who look at you with contempt or corporations that cut your pay to the point that your family needs to rely on food stamps? You lose the ability to defend your honor and that aspect of the master narrative is no longer available to you.

Here’s another example. Vance’s grandparents both believed fervently in hard work and personal responsibility. Papaw labored at the steel plant every day, proud that he earned much more than did the relatives back in Kentucky. Mamaw told J.D. “Never be like those f*cking losers who think the deck is stacked against them. You can be anything you want to.” (p. 56,7)

But what happens if you grow up and the steel mill has stopped hiring? And you’re told that you should go to college, but no one in your family ever has and you have no idea of how to get there? Then, you’re likely to lose hard work and personal responsibility as part of the master narrative; you may give lip service to them, but you no longer live according to them.

Besides losing elements of their master narrative pertaining to honor, responsibility, and the value of hard work, the working class whites described by Vance have lost their master narrative regarding who or what they adulate or worship. Vance notes that “As a culture, we had no heroes.” p. 273) This is significant, for heroes are exemplars–people whose lives are worth imitating. Those without heroes are likely to drift through life with little sense of direction.

Regarding worship, Vance makes this striking assertion:

“Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.” p. 275

I suspect this is an overstatement. A good portion of Appalachia is in the Bible Belt, and even casual Bible readers learn that the God of the Bible forbids his followers from worshiping anything besides him. Thus, at least the more devout in the culture would be motivated to avoid the idolatry of in elevating the nation to the point where it is a source of ultimate meaning. Even so, Vance has identified a real problem here: the master narrative of national pride has been lost. He notes that ” much of my family’s, my neighborhood’s, and my community’s identity derives from our love of country.” (p. 234) The country that they so loved let them down:

“Nothing united us with the core fabric of American society. We felt trapped in two seemingly unwinnable wars, in which a disproportionate share of the fighters came from our neighborhood, and in an economy that failed to deliver the most basic promise of the American Dream–a steady wage.” (p.. 273,4)

The master narrative associated with love of nation and with the American Dream no longer seems viable, and no other story has come along to take its place. Vance’s book has been seen by many as providing insight into the Trump voter. If this is so, perhaps it would be fair to see the Trump voter as someone desperate to reclaim a master narrative by which to live his or her life. Success at this project won’t be accomplished by deporting immigrants, repealing Obamacare, or enacting protectionist legislation. Ultimately it’s about restoring honor and making it possible for those who were disillusioned to have heroes again. It’s about lower class working whites being able to stitch together lives they are proud of.

I recently began a series of posts reflecting on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. As I noted in the first post, I’m particularly interested in Wallace’s perspective on the difficulty modern-day Americans have in living meaningful and genuine lives. The first post looked at the tendency of many of IJ‘s characters to be driven by powerful desires that can’t be adequately satisfied. This post is about another feature common to many of the characters, namely that they live inauthentic lives. One of the few characters who is open and authentic, Mario Incandenza, notices how difficult it is for others at the Enfield Tennis Academy (one of the two main settings in the novel) to be real with each other:

“The older Mario gets, the more confused he gets about the fact that everyone at E.T.A. over the age of about Kent Blott finds stuff that’s really real uncomfortable and they get embarrassed. It’s like there’s some rule that real stuff can only get mentioned if everybody rolls their eyes or laughs in a way that isn’t happy.” (p. 592)

Mario, who is developmentally disabled, disfigured, and quite unsophisticated, experiences life richly. His honesty and straightforwardness contrasts dramatically with his brothers. [I should note that some of what I write here could be a spoiler for those who are reading IJ and prefer not to know what happens.] Orin, the oldest, devotes most of his efforts to seducing women. He has developed a wide variety of facades that he thinks the “Subject” of his efforts will find convincing. He’s successful at getting women into bed, but, since he hasn’t been honest or vulnerable with them, there’s no prospect of intimacy. Thus, the aftereffects are disappointing at best:

“Rarely a feeling of outright unalloyed sadness as such, afterward–just an abrupt loss of hope. Plus there is the contempt he belies so well with gentleness and caring during the post-coital period of small sounds and adjustments.” p. 596

Mario’s younger brother, Hal, one of E.T.A.’s top tennis players, is highly intelligent and is literally a walking encyclopedia, having read and memorized the Oxford English Dictionary. Yet his inner self is impoverished:

“Hal himself hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny; he finds terms like joie and value to be like so many variables in rarified equations, and he can manipulate them well enough to satisfy everyone but himself that he’s in there, inside his own hull, as a human being–but in fact he’s far more robotic than John Wayne [a tennis player who is mechanically efficient]…. [I]nside Hal there’s pretty much nothing at all, he knows.” (p. 694)

Hal has progressively more difficulty functioning as the novel progresses, to the point that, when he attempts to speak in what is chronologically the last scene (but is placed at the beginning of the novel), all that others can hear are shrieks. What has happened to him? The DFW Wiki reports readers have theorized that Hal is suffering the delayed effects of mold he ate as a child or had a hallucinogenic drug put on his toothbrush. I’m inclined to a more psychological interpretation: Hal is a hollow shell, someone who has avoided having an interior life for so long that has lost touch with himself. His humanity is attenuated, and his speech is correspondingly compromised.

Gately and the Wraith. From http://www.brickjest.com, a site that retells Infinite Jest in Legos.

Don Gately, a staff member at drug rehab facility Ennet House, is visited by a “wraith” who is apparently the ghost of James Incandenza, Hal’s father. The wraith describes actors in TV shows like Cheers who fill out the bar’s crowd. These characters, called “figurants,” sit at tables with each other, their lips moving but “always having utterly silent conversations.” Only the stars could speak audibly. The wraith laments that he, “when alive in the world of animate men, had seen his own personal youngest offspring, a son, the one most like him, the one most marvelous and frightening to him, becoming a figurant, toward the end.” (p. 837)  So years earlier, when he was alive, James Incandenza had already seen Hal, his youngest child, as a peripheral figure, appearing to interact like other humans but really a figurant, someone without a voice. It’s no surprise that Hal’s lack of an authentic voice eventually became evident to those around him.

Over at Ennet House, there is a corresponding lack of authenticity. Residents enter claiming that they will do whatever it takes to get better, but usually act contrary to this professed goal, all the while denying the inconsistency. For example, here’s new resident Geoffrey Day:

“Day is scanning the room for somebody else to engage and piss off so he can prove to himself he doesn’t fit in there and stay separated off isolated inside himself and maybe get them so pissed off there’s a beef and he gets bounced out, Day, and it won’t be his fault. You can almost hear his Disease chewing away inside his head, feeding.” (p. 275)

Residents regularly lie to one another or to staff. They also are quick to make excuses. They often see themselves as victims, blaming others for their substance use and terrible life choices rather than taking responsibility. In contrast, authenticity requires radical honesty, as with a speaker at one of the AA meetings who tells her story of  freebasing cocaine throughout her pregnancy, having a stillborn infant, then denying the child was dead and carrying around the rotting corpse as if it were a living baby:

“When she concludes by asking them to pray for her it almost doesn’t sound corny. Gately tries not to think. Here is no Cause or Excuse. It is simply what happened. This final speaker is truly new, ready: all defenses have been burned away.”  (p. 378)

Persons attaining such total honesty have achieved authenticity. This is where healing can start. But so few of the characters either at Ennet House or E.T.A. reach this place of vulnerability and openness, and thus they remain captive to their desires. They, like Hal, are figurants, people hollowed out by their persistent avoidance of their true natures. Their mouths may move, but nothing real comes out.

About a week after the recent U.S. election, I wrote a post regarding the ways I had not followed the path of the pilgrim during the preceding months. The pilgrim’s path is characterized by kindness, clearsightedness, humility, faith in God’s care, and a “hermeneutic of generosity” (Paul Farmer’s phrase for interpretations that give others the benefit of the doubt). Writing about my shortcomings in this regard has helped me subsequently be less preoccupied with current political machinations and more focused on God’s love for all that he has made. It’s helped moderate my fear and anger. What’s left, though, is still sorrow–sorrow mainly for the “losers”–those who will experience negative consequences as a result of the election–but also sorrow for many of the “winners,” particularly those whose votes were based on a narrow self-interest that had in it no room for concern for the well-being of the immigrant, the refugee, or the foreigner. Some of these winners may be disappointed if the new political order doesn’t deliver on some of its promises to them, but I’m mostly concerned that some might get precisely what they want to their detriment. Benefiting at the expense of people less fortunate than you may please you, but it’s not good for your soul.

a-testament-of-devotionI’ve been particularly struck by something I read recently in A Testament of Devotion by Quaker writer and scholar Thomas R. Kelly. The book was copyrighted in 1941, but the chapter from which the quote came was apparently a lecture delivered to the yearly meeting of Quakers held in March, 1939. Kelly’s topic was “Holy Obedience,” which he introduced with a quote by Meister Eckhart:

“There are plenty to follow our Lord halfway, but not the other half. They will give up possessions, friends, and honors, but it touches them too closely to disown themselves.”

Kelly encourages his listeners to follow Jesus all the way. He tells them some benefits will result, among them holiness, humility, simplicity, and suffering. Yes, he considers suffering a benefit. Some will suffer because of oppression, some because of hardship, and, Kelly seems to think, some will suffer because of the suffering of others. Of course there is always someone somewhere who is suffering. I’ve never become calloused to that suffering, though. If anything, it bothers me now more than ever.

Kelly alludes to a conversation he had with a Hindu monk, who told him, “Nothing matters; everything matters.” I think I’ve been able to attend less to politics the last few months because of one side of this paradox–nothing matters. Yet I feel sorrow because of the other side–everything matters. For Kelly, this included “the blighted souls of Europe and China and the Near East and India.” When he wrote early in 1939 Japan had already invaded China and Europe was arming itself in preparation for the war that started later that year. Kelly spelled out the implications for those who sought to follow Jesus the other half of the way:

“In my deepest heart I know that some of us need to face our comfortable, self-oriented lives all over again. The times are too tragic, God’s sorrow is too great, man’s night is too dark, the Cross is too glorious for us to live as we have lived, in anything short of holy obedience. It may or may not mean a change in geography, in profession, in wealth, in earthly security. It does mean this: Some of us will need to enter upon a vow of renunciation and of dedication to the ‘Eternal Internal’ which is as complete and as irrevocable as was the vow of the monk in the Middle Ages.”

Our time is perhaps less tragic than his. Or perhaps not–“the blighted souls” of Syria are being devastated by war; suffering humanity is turned away at many borders; nations exchange threats; nuclear weapons stand at the ready; seas rise from ice-melt as the world warms. I’m less inclined than I used to be to compare the miseries one time to those of another. All times are too tragic; God’s sorrow is always too great; man’s night is always too dark. And there will always be those who are untroubled by such realities and those who respond with the renunciation and dedication that Kelly called for.  The more thought I give to the pilgrim path, the less I’m able to ignore what transpires in the world.

Image from forbes.com.

Image from forbes.com.

Who am I? A pretty good indication of my sense of identity can be inferred from the things that I habitually do. In this season of the year, call it Advent, the Christmas Season, the end-of-the-year-holidays, or the Winter solstice, we are prone to return to whatever habits that shortened days, light displays, Christmas trees, and the like evoke in us (some places in the world don’t have strong associations with this season–I’m referring primarily to North America here). For some, the habits that float to the surface involve religious readings and rituals. Many have well-formed inclinations towards connecting with family and friends. Hearty sorts look forward to outdoor activities possible only under frigid conditions. Then there is shopping.

In his 2007 book Consuming Jesus, theologian Paul Louis Metzger suggests that, in twenty-first century North America, philosopher Rene Descartes famous statement “I think therefore I am” is a less apt description of contemporary attitudes than is the sentiment “I shop at Wal-Mart, therefore I am.” We identify most deeply, in other words, as consumers rather than as thinkers. What we have and use is more important to us than what we imagine and believe.

I’ve written before about the things we own being an important aspect of our identities. At the time I was thinking mostly about possessions in a static sense–the things that we’ve already accumulated and that now sit around our houses. What if, as Metzger seems to be suggesting, what most defines our identities is not what we already own but the process by which we acquire more? Then we would be most truly ourselves at Wal-Mart, or pursuing bargains at Target or Macy’s, or making our selections from the cornucopia that is Amazon.

What would it be like if we gave ourselves over entirely to the trend that Metzger identifies? Rather than seeing ourselves as homo sapiens, we would define ourselves as what Metzger, following Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, calls homo consumens. Correspondingly, we would view our worth in terms of our buying power–those who can purchase more are worth more since they both better support the economy and better exercise the ultimate human act of product selection. In this view of ourselves, our ultimate function would not be to worship God, be stewards of creation, gain knowledge, or exercise reason, but go to the store and buy more stuff, either to keep or to give to family and friends.

I want to be defined by worship, stewardship, curiosity, and reason rather than by consumption. At this time of year, though, I am constantly tempted–via catalogues, billboards, advertising circulars, social media, store displays–to define myself instead as a consumer. May I–may we–be given grace to resist the temptation.

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