Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Even in darkness

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, be 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.
David Foster Wallace-Kenyon Commencement Speech 2005

Sooner or later in life you're going to realize that the only people who have the opportunity to not believe in Something are the people who have been spared something really terrible happening to them. For the rest of us belief and worship of something good - some intangible thing inside of us that seems beyond reason yet everyday tells us to take another step forward, to bear it one more time - belief in something like that is sort of mandatory for survival. 

The crimes perpetrated against human beings like Jaycee Dugard and Elisabeth Friztl are so staggeringly enormous as to be impossible to comprehend. Everyday in this world we read about things like that and ask the same thing - how could men be so evil? Why are these things allowed to happen? That's one of the main reasons I suppose I always rejected believing in Something. There's just no way that something all-powerful but benevolent could allow what happened to those innocent people. But watching and hearing Jaycee Duggard get interviewed about living through an experience so horrifying as to be unimaginable, you can't escape one fact: she survived. Or rather the thing inside her, the thing that she believed in, kept her alive.

The knock against Generation X'rs - people like me who came of age in the late 90's and 2000's - has always been that we believed in nothing. We had no war to fight, no country to build. Most of us had sex as soon as could - we stopped believing in family and God and everything our parents held on to. The music we liked was subversive, counter-culture, a general FU to the whole pristine world of being an adult, transmitted by Nirvana and Blind Melon and NWA and Dr. Dre and Naughty by Nature and Soundgarden....We had nothing to test us and the things we believed in most.
This is why, as much as I rage against it,  I can't really fault entirely all the people in this country who worship the incredibly stupid and banal things in life - money, cars, clothes, cell-phones, looks, sexual allure, and sitting on top of the totem pole: the opinion of others. It's just I suppose a logical extension of what I used to believe. But what we were criticized for ten years ago seems a lot worse today. The kind of nihilsm that pervades the culture of young people today is frightening to me. At least people from my generation believed in creativity, being individual, making something new. Pearl Jam and Wu-Tang Clan were all about a new sound - something that had never been done before. But it's like the thing that people in this country fear most is not being part of a crowd. Like in our society there's two default roles: you have to be the guy on stage waving the towel or in the crowd following his directions. There's no place for real creativity or wanting or believing in things different from everybody else.

The kind of stuff that people worship today - it's not just, as Wallace says, that it's going to consume them and leave them broken and impoverished and disiilusioned in the end. But when something really terrible happens to them then they're not going to be able to hold on to anything.

In the Quran and the Bible and I imagine every major religous work is written the same thing: God sends the rain to fall on the good and wicked alike. He alone chooses on who He sends blessings and tragedies. Some people can live their whole life and never meet the psychopaths and sociopaths that stole so many years from Jaycee Duggard and Elisabeth Friztl - the kind of people who believe preying on the weak and vulnerable is what the world was made for. But a big part of the reason I like war films like Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, is that they teach us in the midst of destruction and cruelty, human virtues shine through. Courage, loyalty, hope...even in darkness the best of what's inside us, what we believe in, shines through. It's a strange duality but the older I get the stranger life becomes. It's as if the things my family believed in and tried their best to teach me might actually have been true.

Elisabeth Friztl and Jaycee Duggard survived the most horrible atrocities imaginable, but it's like even in the darkest hour they found a way to fight through, to survive. That's really all the human race has been doing, from the beginning of time. And whether we know it or not there's no such thing as peacetime. We all fight, every single day, against evil, darkness. And maybe there is Something that could have intervened, but didn't, in order that something brilliant and dazzling could be discovered. If people choose to offer themselves up to the false idols that will consume them then I can't help them. But I'm not like that and I will never be. I went through the darkness. I know what I believe.


  1. You are right " The kind of nihilsm that pervades the culture of young people today is quiet frightening"
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