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How’s the Water?: David Foster Wallace, boredom, and worship in day-to-day living

In 2005 David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) delivered a profound and utterly unique commencement address to the graduating class of Kenyon College.  Here is the link.  Read it.  Wrestle with it.  Be changed by it.

There’s a lot that could be said about the address.  It is an achingly honest meditation on the real challenges of modern American adult life: tedium, boredom, meaninglessness, pettiness, irritation.  The answer to our malaise, says Wallace (to my surprise), is worship.  I cannot help quoting  the speech’s climactic moment at length:

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but 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. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

These “default settings” determine how we evaluate, process, understand, handle, cope-with, and describe our day-to-day experience and they reflect a decision, made consciously or unconsciously, of what and how we will worship.  Education, real education, gives us the capacity to step back and make those decisions at least somewhat consciously and critically, which is better than just being swept along by the merciless torrent of popular cultural assumptions.

Wallace’s words have given me quite a bit to think about for both my life and my work.  Wallace begins his speech with a parabolic joke:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

The interpretation of the parable is this: It is terribly difficult to identify, much less change our “default settings.”  “The point of the fish story,” says Wallace, “is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about.”  Bingo.

The rituals, liturgies, and priorities that make up our day-to-day lives, that orient 99% of what we think, say, and do are so deeply ingrained in us that we scarcely realize them for what they are.  And my choice of the words “rituals, liturgies, and priorities” is quite intentional.  Wallace is dead-on when he says that it is worship that ties all of this together: worship of beauty, of self, of comfort, of whatever.  The worship may be drab and dull.  It may be subconscious, reflexive, and assumed.  But it is worship, nonetheless.

And this isn’t just about self-awareness, it’s about God.   If the gospel is true, it is a dangerous thing to be engaged in perpetual unconscious worship, being unaware of who or what we are worshiping, how we are worshiping, why we are worshiping it, or even that we are worshiping at all.  For, as Calvin said, our hearts are factories for idols and we are bound to be worshiping Baal, or Mammon, or Self, or beauty, or prestige, or parental approval–a Pantheon of lesser “gods”–practically anything but the One God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We are, in other words, liable to be worshiping gods that will eat us, our neighbors, and our world alive.

So what to do?  For Wallace it is education, specifically liberal arts education, that enables us to make intelligent decisions about what we invest with meaning in this world.  I am less sanguine about the idea of the liberal arts’ enabling us to worship well.  Not that Wallace was all that sanguine about it either.  Three years after speaking these words Wallace hanged himself on the patio of his home in Claremont, California.  For all of his brilliance, this man of letters; this MacArthur “genius” fellow, bestselling author, and master wordsmith could not generate enough meaning to stave off the pettiness and tedium of modern American life.  This speech, I suggest, is a window into the tragedy of Wallace’s life.  His education had enabled him to see through this world, to look around at the banalities and trivialities of life and realize “This is water.  This is water.”  But it had not enabled him to look through the water at anything transcendent, anything fundamentally True and Good and Beautiful.  To be able to see everything in life that is water without being seeing what isn’t is to begin to drown.

The re-education that we desperately need is to learn how to see and navigate what is and isn’t water and that will require more than a willy-nilly existential wager on “some sort of god or spiritual-type thing.”  We need and need desperately to learn how to worship in Spirit and Truth in day-to-day living, and that will require more than liberal arts education.  It will require what Jamie Smith calls powerful counter-liturgies: full-orbed ways of living which will cultivate in us better ways of seeing.  It will also require better ways of worshiping in our congregations, ways which will reframe the ways and the whats and the wherefores of our worship in the day-to-day.

There’s more to say on this than should be said in a single blog-post, so I’ll quit.  But I’d love to hear your thoughts on Wallace’s speech.  What do you think about his thoughts on worship?  On modern living?  On adult life?  In other words, tell me: How’s the water?



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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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