I’ve been on a bit of a spiritual quest of late. I’m less interested in developing a personal relationship with a Creator than in meeting life’s vicissitudes with something approaching equanimity. I’m tired of being whipsawed by my nerves and my frequently unrealistic expectations. When confronted with some inane difficulty — say, the dog drags a black Sharpie over the good carpet, or I have to navigate through some heinous voicemail hell just to reach a living, breathing customer service rep (who, as it turns out, can’t help me) — I get pissy first, then simmer down. Well, I’d much rather skip the “get pissy” part.
To that end, I’ve been reading a bit on Buddhism and the art of meditation. I like Buddhism in that there’s no Deity — you are the agent of your own enlightenment, and for a control freak like me, that’s music to the ears. The flip side of this, however, is that Buddhism is strenuous. Sitting still and listening to the breath whistle through one’s nose is, surprisingly, work. Moreover, being the agent of one’s enlightenment demands a lot of vigilance. Each day is a series of choices on how to react to those inane difficulties. Freak out? Or step out of your immediate thoughts and feelings to consider the alternatives? The first is easy and instinctual; the second requires awareness and effort.
David Foster Wallace summarized this kind of choice in his oft-quoted Kenyon College commencement speech, “This is Water.” Wallace posits that our irritability and frustration with others and with our circumstances derives from our supreme self-centeredness, our blindness to any realities but our own. It’s our “default setting”. But with disciplined awareness, Wallace says we can elect to step out of our ingrained thinking open our minds to other possibilities:
” . . . most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
This passage is so beautiful and inspiring that it damn near stops my heart. It also happens to stick in my craw. That’s because what Wallace is asking us to do is to construct a narrative for every f*cker that takes up two parking spaces, or doesn’t pay for the used video games you sold them on ebay, or otherwise acts in a way that personally inconveniences you. Now, David Foster Wallace was a great writer. I bet he was deft at constructing alternative narratives for all sorts of aggravating behavior. I, on the other hand, am not a great writer. I struggle to come up with suitable email sign-offs, let alone potential reasons for peoples’ actions beyond (1) they’re stupid; and (2) they’re evil.
That’s right. Your garden-variety num-nuts responds to your braking by stroooooollllling across your path, sometimes pausing to throw you an indifferent glance. Now, on the Foster Wallace plan, I shouldn’t just sit there gripping the steering wheel until my knuckles blanch and the blood in my hands flushes back up my brainstem, causing an aneurysm. I should imagine reasons for num-nuts’ ambulatory indolence — reasons designed to make num-nuts sympathetic and worthy of my compassion. For example, maybe num-nuts is a mathematical genius along the lines of John Nash and is walking slowly because he is mentally constructing a proof that will change macro-economics, forever. Or maybe num-nuts just had to order his dog euthanized by the vet and is stumbling through a fog of grief and disbelief.
Or: maybe num-nuts is just an asshole.
See, that’s my problem, right there. I find the most obvious and most likely narrative the most compelling.
Take another situation:
My initial gut assessment of someone like doofus is: What a pretentious idiot, intent on showing everyone how incredibly educated he is. And what’s worse, his ostentatious hee-hawing is totally destroying my ability to enjoy Jude Law as Hamlet (a pleasure for which I paid two hundred).
But again, if I were to Foster Wallace it, I would have to mull over nicer, kinder reasons for why doofus is such a f*cking doofus. Reasons such as: His sadistically demanding parents disowned him for pursuing an English degree over one in Finance, and to this day he feels an unrelenting need to justify his choice. Or, he just really, really, really, genuinely likes dirty Elizabethan humor.
Here, my brain starts to argue with me. My brain often does this, since my brain went to law school.
BRAIN: All you’re doing is making up hypotheticals that play into your own value system. This allows you to feel the simulacrum of compassion, but not real compassion.
ME: What does “simulacrum” mean again?
BRAIN: It’s like in David Foster Wallace’s speech, when he says that he allays his irritation with SUV drivers by considering that they might have once been in a terrible car accident, and their therapists directed them to drive huge, gas-guzzling machines to make them feel more protected on the road. Nice thought, except that it’s nothing more than a projection of Foster Wallace’s liberal, environmentally-conscious ideals onto complete and utter strangers. Sure, it could be true, but it could be just as true that these SUV drivers aren’t all that concerned with carbon emissions, and happen to really like their nice big cars.
ME: But the point is to turn off the “default setting” . . .
BRAIN: Which is fine! If concocting pure hokum about people makes you feel less pissy towards them, then great! But don’t go around thinking you’ve tapped the “mystical oneness of all things” just because you can make up pretty little stories about people you don’t know from Adam.
ME: Harsh, Brain. Harsh.
Except that my brain has a point. True compassion, true tenderness towards humanity, occurs when you know the asshole — his story, his history — and you manage to love him anyway. Anyone who’s ever had a successful family relationship or romantic relationship gets this. Say, your kid freaks out whenever he tries to draw a picture and it doesn’t come out to his standards. His horse looks more like a deformed pig and he throws a tantrum and tears up the sketch and starts to cry. He’s done this one hundred billion times (or at least it seems) and every time, you’ve talked to him patiently about the pitfalls of perfectionism and the importance of regulating emotion and how art is about the journey, not the destination. Quite truthfully, you’re sick of him and his neurotic shit-fits and you want to slap him upside the head. Instead, you calm him down with a glass of milk and give him the same patient talk and give him a big hug, even though you’re not feeling all that comforting and cuddly.
So I guess that’s my beef with Foster Wallace’s approach: it only works on “People” in the abstract. I think it’s a fine method, as far as it goes. If conjecturing that the woman in front of you in the checkout line who’s screaming bloody hell at her kids is just having a bad day keeps you from going on a murderous rampage at Target, then go for it. But any closeness or connection you feel with her as a result is purely fictional, a figment of your imagination.
Of course, all the foregoing leads back to the simple question: How do you deal with jerks? How do you confront their jerkiness without angst, or despair, or Manson-esque rage?
I WISH I KNEW.
The best I can do is — when the postal worker insists on slamming down the metal security gate, refusing to take my package when I walk into an empty office at 4:59 — breathe. I try not to focus on whatever brazen indignity has been foisted upon me. I just focus on the air whistling in and out my nose. And my husband, who is a pretty stoic guy, has furnished me with a sort of mantra to chant to myself as I go:
It’s not exactly David Foster Wallace. It’s not exactly Zen, either. But it’s all I got.