Eleven Steps Forward…

“Humility—the acceptance that being human is good enough—is the embrace of ordinariness.” —underlined by David Foster Wallace in his copy of Ernest Kurtz’s The Spirituality of Imperfection. (source)

People who know me well know that I’ve been thinking a lot about David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon University. I think it has profound implications for anyone attempting 12 step recovery, particularly on the foundational role of doubt in 12 step recovery.

…blind certainty, a closemindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn’t even know he’s locked up.

The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.

…As I’m sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head (may be happening right now). Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about quote the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.

…The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

The speech really speaks to me and I thought it offered some spiritual sustenance for agnostic 12 step members.

Then, this article was posted, exposing the sources of his struggles and insight though his personal library:

Among David Foster Wallace’s papers at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin are three hundred-odd books from his personal library, most of them annotated, some heavily as if he were scribbling a dialogue with the author page by page.

…One surprise was the number of popular self-help books in the collection, and the care and attention with which he read and reread them. I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace’s library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully.

The article goes on to describe some of DFW’s presumed 12 step involvement. (And his reluctance to discuss it.)

Now, a review of his recently published posthumous book frames it as an exercise in attention and awareness and, more specifically, an exercise in the 11 step of AA:

You could say that David Foster Wallace was looking for a place for prayer in modern American life. It was Simone Weil, the great Catholic/Jewish philosopher and mystic of the 20th century, who once said that, “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” That is exactly the power all the characters of The Pale King are learning about, absolute unmixed attention. The IRS building in Peoria, as Wallace imagines it, is practically a monastery. The acolytes are at their examiners tables learning how to pray. The U.S. tax code becomes the new catechism.

Looking at it this way, you could also call The Pale King David Foster Wallace’s version of an 11th step. According to the literature of AA, the 11th step is when members of AA “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” The earlier steps in the 12-step tradition are largely about clearing away the bondage of self, learning to reintegrate oneself into the “stream of life.” The 11th step is about formalizing that process into a daily practice. It is, in DFW’s language, about creating habits for simple attention, awareness. It is about finding ways to worship. Here’s how Wallace put it in his now-famous 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College:

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, bet 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.

I’ve wrestled with the question, “Should his suicide take anything away from these spiritual insights he articulated?” I don’t think so. Peace, contentment and humility came very hard to him and often these people are the best positions to be our teachers. Also, I take his family at their word that a change in medication may have played a very important role in his suicide.