Highwayman.jpg from Wikimedia Commons

This is a poem I wrote last month. Sometimes I write something that I particularly like. This is one of those things. I don’t know quite why. It’s about the unpredictability of life, not a particularly pleasant theme. Maybe it captures my present situation-mom dying, having to move, lots of uncertainties ahead-fairly well. I’d be interested in reactions that others have when they read it.

Our lives are often linear, 
not wavering from course, 
so that we come to think we’re on 
a road that’s without forks. 
As things remain the same, we will 
increasingly take hold 
of calculations that provide 
illusions of control. 
But change is like a highwayman 
that’s lying just ahead 
to rob us of our certainties 
and leave our plans for dead. 
A bone will break, a car will crash, 
pneumonia grows from coughs; 
God uses ordinary things 
to throw the balance off. 
He baffles and befuddles us 
disturbing our neat rows; 
the Holy Spirit hasn’t come  
to coronate the known. 

This is the last in a series of posts about David Foster Wallace’s monumental novel Infinite Jest. Wallace details a variety of factors that make it difficult to live as an authentic self in twenty-first century America. I most recently posted about practices that characters in his book used to battle addictions and live more authentically. Much of what he said is similar to the approach taken by James K.A. Smith.

Smith, a philosopher from Calvin College, has written a series of books about the importance of our actions in shaping us. He refers often to DFW; Marathe’s comment that “You are what you love” is also the title of one of Smith’s books. Smith writes, “our most fundamental orientation to the world–the longings and desires that orient us to some version of the good life–are shaped and configured by imitation and practice.” (You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, p. 19) Like Wallace in his Kenyon College speech, Smith proposes that humans are creatures that worship–we can’t not worship. Our devotion is evident not only when we attend religious services but also when we engage in secular “liturgies” such as going to the mall. By our actions we are always giving ourselves away to something, and we are shaped thereby. Sometimes we give homage mindlessly, but we can also intentionally engage in liturgies in an effort to change. We can choose to engage in practices that with time will reshape our desires.

This same strategy for change–identify what activities will transform you and do those things repeatedly until they shape your desires and thoughts, not being overly concerned with how or why the change occurs–is an essential part of the program at E.T.A., the tennis academy that is one of the two main settings in Infinite Jest. Here is Jim Troeltsch, one of the older players, speaking to his Little Buddies:

“Boys, what it is is I’ll tell you it’s repetition. First last always. It’s hearing the same motivational stuff over and over till sheer repetitive weight makes it sink down into the gut. It’s making the same pivots and lunges and strokes over and over and over again, at you boy’s age it’s reps for their own sake, putting results on the back burner…” (p. 117)

Unlike the transformative practices at Ennet House and AA, which are also described at length in IJ, the practices at E.T.A. are mainly designed to make the students the best tennis players they can be. There’s also some attention given to preventing the successful players from self-destructing, but there’s no emphasis on shaping desires or becoming authentic selves. And, though the E.T.A. liturgies contain, as do those of AA, elements reminiscent of worship (I think that the human proclivity to worship is what DFW means when he talks about the impulse to give oneself away), this similarity isn’t discussed. This topic is probably one of those “real” matters that Mario, the novel’s ‘holy fool,’ has noticed embarrasses all but the younger players. When Mario visited the other main setting in the novel, the drug treatment facility at Ennet House, he liked it “because it’s very real; people are crying and making noise and getting less unhappy, and once he heard somebody say God with a straight face and nobody looked at them or looked down or smiled in any sort of way where you could tell they were worried inside.” [p. 591]

Mario’s brother Hal, one of the star players at E.T.A., has improved his tennis skills tremendously as a result of the practices taught at E.T.A., but these practices have done nothing to cure his inner emptiness. In contrast, over at Ennet House, Gately has followed the suggestions offered him by A.A. and his desires are changing. He’s also becoming a more complete self, one who cares about others and wants to do what is right. [The rest of this paragraph discusses the end of the book, so readers who don’t want spoilers should skip it.] Near the end of IJ, as Gately lies in his hospital bed, he reflects on his life while he was still actively using, especially his relationship with “Fackelmann,” with whom he committed crimes to support his habit. Fackelmann did something that put him in grave danger; rather than helping him, Gately took advantage of him. It’s not made clear why Gately relives this memory; my take is that by doing so he is mentally engaging in the liturgical practices of confession and repentance. As Christians have learned for centuries, these practices have tremendous power to shape us. Their power doesn’t stem from being embedded in a religious ceremony; they are effective even for those, like Gately, who practice them in the temple of the imagination. The book ends with symbolism that could be suggesting new birth; perhaps Gately receives forgiveness from the God he can’t sense and has trouble believing in.

Despite the hundreds of pages devoted to all manner of folly and failure, in the end IJ seemed to me to be a hopeful book. No matter how badly the characters behaved, no matter what trouble they got themselves into, redemption was possible. The route to wholeness is seen most clearly in the practices of AA, but the way of redemption is much more ancient than that, having been followed by pilgrims throughout the centuries. Recognize how far you’ve fallen, surrender your pride, and practice those things that will teach you humility, constancy, and patience. As the apostle Peter put it, the God of all grace will restore, establish, and strengthen you.

In his book Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explained that we aren’t very good at all at anticipating how happy some future experience will make us.  Gilbert has gone on to look at how well we anticipate other aspects of the future.  According to a New York Times article published earlier this year, Gilbert and a team of researchers have found that we aren’t very good at predicting how different we will be years from now.  In particular, we tend to think that we won’t change much despite evidence that most of us change considerably during our lives.  The researchers dub this phenomenon the “end of history illusion.”

Research participants ranging in age from 18 to 68 reported their past and present personality traits and preferences and estimated how these would change in the future.  The typical participant expected much less future change than would be expected based on the changes that others had undergone in the decades the participants were entering.  As John Tierney, the Times reporter, put it, “the typical 20-year-old woman’s predictions for her next decade were not nearly as radical as the typical 30-year-old woman’s recollection of how much she had changed in her 20s. This sort of discrepancy persisted among respondents all the way into their 60s.”

What explains the end of history illusion?  The report gives a few explanations offered by the researchers.  It’s hard to imagine how we might change, and we might take the difficulty of thinking of what our future selves will be like as evidence that we won’t change that much.  Also, most of us tend to see our current selves quite favorably.  If in our own eyes we are perfectly fine the way we are, what would make us decide to change?  It’s disconcerting to think that our current preferences and way of living are ephemeral and will pass away sooner rather than later.

William Ernest Henley

William Ernest Henley

I find the second explanation particularly powerful; it fits well with what I take to be a major source of human motivation, namely that we are motivated to construct and defend a favorable picture of ourselves.  I wonder if there isn’t another process also at work, though.  We Westerners in particular tend to overestimate our own agency.  “Am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul,” wrote William Ernest Henley in the short poem Invictus, a work cited as an influence by figures as diverse as Nelson Mandela, Andre Agassi, and Timothy McVeigh.  The second verse illustrates well the belief that we can stand firm against the tumult of events:

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

If we are fine the way we are and can’t be bowed by circumstance, it makes sense to think we’ll never change.  Except we aren’t fine the way we are, for if we were, the world would be an idyllic place.  And we can be changed by circumstance.  We just don’t expect things to happen as they will, or, if we anticipate them, we underestimate how powerful their bludgeonings will be.  Thus, in my 30s, I was affected much more than I expected by becoming a father; in my 40s, my sense of who I was changed dramatically when I went through a divorce I never thought would happen; and, in my 50s, I developed a steadfastness and confidence I hadn’t had before in response to unrelenting written and oral attacks from a coworker.  Now, in my 60s I have left full-time employment much earlier than I expected to return to my hometown and help my parents.  Am I being changed by having done so?  How could it be otherwise?

I recently talked to a colleague who within the last year started a job in which she’s found her fellow managers to be arrogant and power hungry, and the employees to be discouraged and downtrodden.  She believes God has put her there, and I suggested that she can be a light in that dark place.  She agreed, but ended our conversation by adding, “Maybe God put me there because of what he wants to teach me.”  Isn’t that part of the walk of faith?  While we seek to serve God in the circumstances in which we find ourselves, he uses those very circumstances to shape us.  History hasn’t ended; we will be changed.