A few years ago I read David Foster Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address, which talks about, among other things, assumptions hidden in plain sight. At the time it made an impression on me because it was passionate, wise, and came at a time where I was really confused about things and needed something to hold on to.
The other day I read a David Brooks editorial about what character traits make Presidents successful. I have no idea if I agree with the arguments but one characteristic jumped out at me: according to Brooks, great presidents have “an instrumental mentality. They do not feel the office is about them. They are just God’s temporary instrument in service of a larger cause.”
That comment reminded me of the Kenyon college address, because that’s exactly the kind of assumption hidden in plain sight that Wallace was talking about. To see yourself as a temporary instrument of God is a kind of basic assumption that colors your entire perspective of reality. Do I see myself as an instrument of some higher power? What do I see myself as?
It’s very cold outside right now. When I’m walking around, I generally want to get indoors as soon as possible, and I feel vaguely threatened by the whole situation, the fact that the environment I live in is actively conspiring to physically destroy me. I walk fast, and when someone gets in my way my default reaction is to feel like they’re an obstacle, a threat to my existence. It’s a seismic shift in perspective to turn around and see through some other lens.
I consider myself an atheist in the sense that I think it’s important not to believe things for social reasons. I think a lot (although not all) of “God” talk is people looking around and saying “well everyone else seems to think this is true, guess I should think it’s true too,” and therefore perpetuating a set of tribal creation myths down through the ages. However I think when I take that same skepticism and point it at the scientific, materialist view of reality, it feels just as unreal to me. The honest answer is that really I have no clue about the big questions — what is consciousness, why does the universe exist, how can clods of dirt feel like they have souls. It’s a blank, a blind spot, the eye trying to see itself.
When I try to feel an answer instead of think an answer, “God’s temporary instrument in service of a larger cause” feels right. “God” can’t be person — i.e. all the yucky ego individuality of someone with their desires and preferences and opinions — but what I do get is a feeling of a vast, unknowable creative energy trying to enter the universe, and the opportunity, if I’m able, to become an outlet of that energy, a point of intersection between its total abstract non-particularity and the living breathing stuff of life.
These are easier thoughts to have on cold days. On warmer days, there is this whole conventional universe that rises up. I almost can’t start describing it because it’s so omnipresent in every single thought I have that it’s impossible to sort out. But I can see it externally: for instance, the sitcom “How I met your mother.” The characters in that sitcom live in a safe, enclosed world, with predictable rules, certain given aspirations (find a life partner and settle down), a rotating collection of fixed scenery, and a shared set of values. I’m picking “How I met your mother” in particular because that little universe is fairly similar to the conventional universe that I happen to live in. Not identical, but close enough that it hits home. The amazing thing is how completely it saturates my mind, to the point where everything I perceive is interpreted through that lens.
Cold days remind me that there’s stuff that lays outside of all that. There are some basic facts of human existence, namely that we are frail, easily destroyed biological creatures living fixed lifespans and oftentimes in competition with reality and each other for the necessities of life, that are incompatible with the plots of “How I met your mother”. I also recently read this blog post about war, which is really sick and weird and points out exactly the same thing, that the reason people value war, that it’s so hard to stamp out the glorification of violence altogether, is that when you stack the realities of war up against conventional existence, even though it is worse because there is pain and loss, it’s intrinsically more compelling, because it can have the effect of breaking people’s lenses and letting them see the world with fresh eyes, even though the world they see with those fresh eyes is one of horrors.
Anyway I’m not sure exactly where I’m going with this. I had a taste earlier today of switching perspectives, of what it feels like for my individual pleasure and happiness not to be important and instead finding that being a vessel for greater creative forces to move through me is what’s important. I think I would like to be there more often. It’s hard and scary, though, because there’s such a tendency to revert, and because it’s infinitely more terrifying to live outside of convention. But also it’s so much more joyful and peaceful and happy to feel for a moment that really at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what happens to me, to feel flat words like love and compassion and kindness actually take on three dimensional weight when they are for once put in their proper context, which is that life is wild and dangerous and difficult and very very real.