Litlove recently wrote a post in which she used the phrase “the usual serendipity of reading,” which is a great way to describe how books so often speak to each other and to us in unexpected ways. I’ve recently come across my own example. (And, in a nice twist, I’ve just been talking about serendipity in my “Intro to the Arts” course as we discuss how to access one’s creativity.) I’ve been reading Pema Chödrön’s book When Things Fall Apart where she writes about how we tend to run away from anything that is painful or unpleasant rather than facing it and considering what it means and what it might teach us. She writes:
Most of us do not take these situations [situations that cause discomfort] as teachings. We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape — all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain. In fact, the rampant materialism that we see in the world stems from this moment. There are so many ways that have been dreamt up to entertain us away from the moment, soften its hard edge, deaden it so we don’t have to feel the full impact of the pain that arises when we cannot manipulate the situation to make us come out looking fine.
Those of you who participated in Infinite Summer may know where I’m going with this: Infinite Jest deals with exactly this dynamic — the impulse to run away from pain and discomfort straight into the arms of whatever distraction we can find. People are so desperate for entertainment and distraction, in fact, that in Infinite Jest their lives are at risk. At the center of the novel’s plot (such as it is) is a film referred to as “the entertainment” that is so seductive, so irresistable, that people literally can’t draw their eyes away from it and will starve themselves and die rather than have to stop watching it. And others — lots of others — distract themselves with alcohol and drugs, violence, obsessive work, or really anything that can keep them from having to think. Facing their problems directly is just too difficult.
My favorite character in the book, Don Gately, is a recovering drug addict who has learned all this, in his own way. Now that he is no longer addicted to drugs, thanks to AA, he is finding out what it means to face pain and discomfort directly. He is finding out that all the things the drugs helped him repress are now coming back, and he has become haunted by memories of his hellishly difficult childhood and his horribly violent young adulthood in a way he’s never experienced before.
I love Gately because he’s such a brave soul, and he has no idea just how brave he is. He looks around him at the halfway house where he lives and works and sees people who are just beginning to attend AA meetings and who scoff at all the cheesiness and cliches involved, and he understands why they scoff, but he has learned that facing reality in the way Pema Chödrön writes about is just so difficult that people can’t do it on their own. They need the support of the daily AA meetings, the belief in a vague “higher power,” the motivational cliches and all the rest of it. It’s a practice, really, not unlike meditation. Both practices teach people to take things one day at a time, or one moment at a time, to focus on what’s real, to face oneself directly and admit shortcomings honestly, to admit that we have no control over ourselves and our lives. Gately doesn’t understand why AA works, but he knows it does, and he’s willing to trust it, no matter what. And believe me, this trust gets tested.
I have no idea if David Foster Wallace was interested in Eastern spirituality at all, but I felt its presence in this novel. It may be I read it this way because I’m interested in it at the moment, but at any rate, I love how these two books have had so much to say to me.