David Foster Wallace, Elizabeth Gilbert, Suicide and Infinite Potential

DavidfosterwallaceThe “This is Water ” [shown below] video that someone made of a David Foster Wallace commencement speech was floating around the internet today and I watched it again even though I remembered taking issue with it the first time I saw it. It reminds me of the author Elizabeth Gilbert’s Ted Talk about mental health and artists and how we need to look out for our geniuses and keep them healthy by not making depression glamourous.

Of course, Gilbert’s talk came to mind because David Foster Wallace killed himself. And when I watched that Ted Talk, I thought that it was a little presumptuous of Gilbert to imagine that her experience is similar to the “typical” ruined genius. She basically writes self-help books, right?

Then I felt like a jerk, because maybe that’s a shitty thing to think. What do I know about Elizabeth Gilbert?

I’ve never been able to read any books by David Foster Wallace because someone told me his suicide inspired my best friend and worst enemy to follow suit. It’s a sorry excuse, perhaps. Certainly, I don’t think it was a core reason for Joe.* It was just another drop in the bucket, I guess. He would be so annoyed with me for not reading them.

Joe was an artist, a musician, and he was sensitive. He probably would have had similar observations to those in Wallace’s speech—in a moment of compassion, perhaps.

Since the first time I saw the “This is Water” video and now, I’ve lost another sensitive artist friend—he’s flown away. He didn’t want to be in the water anymore.

My emotions weren’t there for me when I got the recent news, they never are. I seem to stand back a bit, always braced for the blast. Too bad for me.

They’re here now.

This video came around again and I think the same thing that I thought the first time I saw it. I wonder if it seems this way to you:

We all know the feeling that other people are “in my way” or are “stupid and disgusting.” And I am totally behind Wallace’s idea that a selfish-default setting is lazy and should be adjusted to have a different experience in this life.

Still, even though I believe that we ought to consider others may be just as sad and miserable as we are, or that they are perhaps even more tragic and doomed to even worse a fate—I feel that this is not the only option here.

The “we are all just here to suffer together” idea can’t be right.

If it’s within the power of your mind to switch off the selfish-default in order to feel compassion for other people, if the mind is so malleable that you can use it to create the worlds we read in books and hear in songs (and see in paint, etc.—you get the idea), why are we limited to the idea that the best we can do is remember suffering is shared? By that logic, I wonder why any of us go on at all.

We are all in this together, it’s true, and life is so very bad sometimes. In some places it’s been bad for a really long time. Maybe it’s not getting better and it never will. But I know that everywhere is this beautiful chance. Perhaps that chance is worth living for.

I know that I don’t get to choose everything. A plane could fly into my house—I can’t choose that. I can only choose to recognize a moment’s potential. Potential is everywhere; some moments are thick with it. Anything could happen right now.

I used to work with people who suffered from terrible mental and physical health problems and often addictions. One night, I was called up to a client’s room to give him his morphine medication. He got like 10 doses of morphine a day, he was less a foot and a hand, paralyzed from the waist down and a heavy heroin user. He moved around in a motorized bed.

When I was in his room he asked if I would make him some tea, which I did, and while I was listening to his instructions to put nearly half a cup of sugar into his cup, he told me that he was eating too much sugar and should probably cut back, that he’d seen a television program about the evils of sugar. “Do you know that the average American consumes ten times as much sugar as they did in the fifties?”

I didn’t know that, I said. I told him I believed it. “I should cut back,” he said again.

And I thought: why bother? Really. Sugar is the absolute least of your problems. But, when I walked down the nine flights of stairs to my desk, I realized that the potential in his moment is just as intense and exciting, heavy, intimidating and horrifying as mine. There is a wild and vast future for him and everything is in it. He knows that.

We all live in intense potential. When you’re at work in your cubical, at the market, the post office, listening to someone bullshit you. You never have to worry about potential, you absolutely cannot miss it.

You are already doing everything you can to increase your potential just by choosing to breathe. It’s not just in yoga or meditation class, it’s everywhere: at work, in the shower, when you’re doing your homework or thinking about killing yourself—it’s right there with you. All the time.

There’s a chance in every second that you could fall in love, win a million dollars, have your heart-broken, lose your best friend, get a new best friend, get fat/thin, hear the best song in the world, write the best song in the world, drop dead, have an orgasm, levitate, astral project, solve all the world’s problems or feel them all at once.

There’s more to life than suffering, I think. Wherever the molecules of my two friends have ended up, I hope they can feel how their existences have created ripples in the infinite potential. They are a part of what I am. For me, that’s huge.

*Name is changed
**note: this was nearly impossible to write without sounding like a pompous turkey burger. I want to disclaim any desire to prescribe ways of life, I’m only trying to uncover a truth about staying alive–like, why people do it.
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