Sunday, October 11, 2015

If You Can

"If you can think of times in your life that you've treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think that it's probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we're here for is to learn how to do it. I know that sounds a little pious."

- David Foster Wallace as told to David Lipsky in Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

* * *

DFW is a sort of Rorschach test for those encounter him: saint, fool, genius, over-hyped, etc. It all misses the point. He was none of that. He was David, and for a while he worked and he left behind proof of his passing this way. If you read him, do not do so with any thought but this: I hold another's life in my hands.

* * *

The road seeks its traveler the same way a wanderer seeks his home: hungrily, despairing, hopeful to know its place, its missing half, the promise of communion. If the road is merely empty and we populate it only with our doings, our imaginings, then this is a barren life. Then only our misplaced self-importance exists and is the sole engine of our existence. The pride of the righteous, the religious zealot, the affluent leech - all dance on this point: I am complete unto myself for I know. But what happens if the road you are to travel is actively seeking you out, trying to make itself known to you while you piddle along? What happens if you don't know and you set out to find out what there is for you to know and to do? You would have a very different sort of life, a very different approach to life and the proofs of your passing this way would turn out to be very different, radically different, indeed.

It is easy to step into others' proofs and take them as your own.  They have done the work and their answers seem to fit an emptiness inside you and so you come to believe as they believed without doing any of the work that allowed them to believe in whatever it was they came up with. Books and music and art and stories told across the kitchen table are repositories of these proofs and you, if you are lucky, learn to love these gifts and you turn to them for solace and guidance and simply the good company of the ones you've found. The challenge here is not that you must go out and write a book, or tell any sort of story in whatever medium in order to claim a bit of purchase for yourself. No. The challenge is to use those proofs as jumping off places, not end points. 

In other words, to let go of what you thought or expected your life to be, and be at home in it as it is.

Even when its dark.

* * *

It is easier for most of us to care for others than it is to care for ourselves. It is somehow unseemly to place the oxygen mask on ourselves first. Maybe it has something to do with pride in our suffering, a sort of showy display of how much we hurt, or how much we give, or how misunderstood we are so that someone else will validate our parking ticket and say we're all right. And it is certainly possible that we can learn to care for ourselves as we would a dear and precious friend through the relationships we build into our lives. Absolutely. But if we never manage to love the fact that we exist at all - regardless of our circumstances - if we fail to find our road because we spend so much time on others' paths, if we can't get to extraordinary decency and love as it comes to how we view ourselves, then the job is half done.

It is possible to achieve this without leaning on any orthodoxy, on any authority other than being fully awake to this moment. 

You have felt it many times, but you couldn't hold onto it and so either didn't believe it or dismissed it as a bit of undigested beef: the sky shot through with color as light bends around the curve of the earth illuminating the underbellies of clouds, the day your child said your name for the first time, your dog's sad eyes telling you about love, the grief of burying your father, your mother, your child, your spouse, your lover's hips in candlelight, riding a bike with no hands, laughter, the smell of pipe tobacco, the impossible redness of blood, the Fibonacci Sequence, and so on and so on. Each day, each moment is waiting for you to recognize in it the possibility of becoming yourself and no other: the revelation of the numinous in a cup of coffee at 5 AM.

I say the road is looking for you. It needs you. It isn't that roads are sentient, only that the unlikely combustion of atomic possibility that is the physical version of you is not isolated only to being human. It is what we swim in at each moment and those who can achieve this decency and love for their failings, their desires, their ignorance find that the world around them changes as they change. There is no promise of ease, or the absence of pain, only that you will course through it and again be changed by it. And the road will carry you on.

Love and decency in times of darkness is the whole point.

* * *

There are times when I suddenly grieve DFW's death. It is an out of the blue wash of "Fuck. No, no, no." It isn't that a great author could not tame the howling darkness of depression. Only that anyone suffered it so.

It is impossible to know the backstory of all but those few closest to us and even then, we are filling in the blanks to suit a narrative that has built up over time. The reverse is also true: no one will know what it was like to be us, the accumulation of days and losses and gifts that bring us to this one moment. We can tell what we can of our story to those closest to us. We can write it out so others might find it and be comforted or challenged by it, but only we will know it.  As such, there is no one better placed to show us some mercy, to be kind and decent to and to forgive ourselves for ever not knowing this.

* * *

I know that sounds a little pious.



  1. Mark, I cannot thank you enough for returning to us, the fucked and sharing your guide....I look forward to each new entry and choose to use your words as tools to help give some direction to finding a path that may lead to being unfucked. One can never have too many tools in their chest, but some tools such as yours, are more useful than others...Keep them coming, we are listening and you make a difference.

    1. Deb, you are kinder than I can say. I am glad this work has found you again. This project lives in myriad ways and I am hesitant to say much about how it works for anyone who finds it, how it works on me, what might come of it. That may sound like false humility, but the truth is if I let any of those thoughts become part of this it will tilt the process and I won't know where I am in this. Thank you for taking the time to read me, to send back a note. It makes me feel I am on the right road.

  2. Ain't got no, I got Life - Nina Simone