courtesy of David Foster Wallace
Late last year I was stumbling around online trying to avoid actual work in my uninspiring get-me-through-uni retail job when I came across a long form article about tennis genius Roger Federer titled Federer as Religious Experience.
It was a scintillating piece on the technical brilliance of Federer’s game, the evolution of modern tennis and the beauty at the heart of professional sport. I have never been an avid tennis watcher; I’m still not. It was not the tennis that was striking about the article but the skill of the author, the raw intelligence on display and the ability to give earth-shattering significance to the most minute details.
I checked out the byline to see who wrote it, the name was only passingly familiar; David Foster Wallace. After a quick look at Wikipedia, I discovered that Wallace was one of the most highly regarded authors in modern literature; his non-fiction pieces for various magazines were the stuff of legend, his magnum opus, the 1079-page novel Infinite Jest, was named as one of the best novels of the last century by Time Magazine. I also learned that he had taken his own life in 2008, another tragic victim of clinical depression.
I quickly devoured everything he wrote that I could find; much of his magazine feature writing is available online and I found that he had a way of opening up the hidden places of the world. Everything he wrote seemed to be gently probing me to slow down, think about what really matters and hey! have a look at this over here, isn’t this fascinating?
Wallace’s true power was in finding the interesting and, ultimately, the sacred in the ordinary and everyday. Wallace was not a Catholic, though he did have some form of Christian faith. Nonetheless, the worldview that he continued to present in both his essays and his fiction is one that is inescapably Catholic. Not only that, but his view on the real and lasting purpose of education is one that I think resonates in a journal such as this.
A didactic interpolation:
A few years ago a friend of mine who was two years out of school admitted that she didn’t know what the Holocaust was, or who Hitler was (apart from being a bad dude). She went to a good Catholic school, so I don’t think it was a failure of education. I think, rather, it was a failure of her own curiosity. It was a decision, conscious or otherwise, to ignore the things outside her immediate experience. There was a gap, not so much in her knowledge but in the way she thought about the world and what she chose to see as important. There is an element of education here; a recurring theme in Wallace’s writing is that the true value of an education is learning how to think and what to pay attention to. What my friend didn’t understand was that an event like the Holocaust is not mere historical fact but part of the ongoing human drama that continues to this day.
This is no more evident than in his famous 2005 Commencement Address to students at Kenyon College, Ohio. It’s called This is Water and I recommend seeking it out (you can find it easily enough online), it not only provides a wonderfully moving distillation of the primary themes in Wallace’s writing, it is also an unintentional guide to real Catholic living and, by extension, Catholic education.
Wallace begins by drawing attention to the ‘default settings’ we each have as we live our lives. At the forefront is the unconscious belief that I am the centre of the universe; “The world as you experience it is there in front of you or behind you, to the left or right of you.” And central to being educated is to have the ability to expand your knowledge and perception of the world outside yourself. Such an idea is, of course, central to the ethos of Catholic education, that you are educated not only for yourself but to be able to bring faith, love and genuine change to the world.
The key for Wallace is that, when you get a good education, you get to choose what you pay attention to. It is in the ordinary day-to-day grind of life that you get down to the business of whether or not you operate from a default setting of selfishness or allow yourself to be drawn out and see your experience as something else entirely – something holy.
This should sound familiar. This being called beyond yourself, this finding transcendence in the everyday – this is Catholicism. This is what it is like to follow Christ. It is a way of being, not merely a belief. Wallace effectively makes that point that when he says:
But if you really learn how to pay attention…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.
The force that made the stars is in everything you and I do; it is there in the long checkout line at night, it is there in the morning rush of traffic, it is there in the classroom with the difficult student. More accurately, He is there in those moments. The ability to have eyes to see is what being ‘educated’ is all about. What you are teaching your students, your children, your co-workers and your friends is ultimately, as Wallace says, “being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.”
Our faith is an incarnate faith, God reveals Himself to us in our humanity. In the brief encounters with others, the long battle with ourselves and in the little sacrifices we make. David Foster Wallace shows us that in those moments, when you really learn to pay attention, you will find Him there.
Samuel Mullins is an Honours graduate in Creative Communication from the University of Canberra and worked in Youth Ministry for over 5 years. He was married in 2010 and now lives in Wollongong with his wife. He spends his spare time reading, writing and pondering the deep questions of life.