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.
–David Foster Wallace
1. IN WHICH MR. FURIOUS BEGINS THE ESSAY WITH AN ANECDOTE THAT SEEMS TO HAVE LITTLE TO DO WITH THE TRUE TOPIC AT HAND
I used to believe that the old Greek myth that best represented how I experienced life was that of Icarus. That my failings in life were the result of my aiming too high. Impossibly high. Moronically high.
I first had this inkling sometime in my middle school years when we read a version of the myth in a dilapidated “Language Arts” textbook. This inkling also happened to coincide with one of those periodic manic episodes that I get every three years or so, where I convince myself that I’m smarter, prettier, stronger and better-destined than anyone else. So, soon after reading about the myth and dismissing it in that snotty ignorant-arrogant adolescent way, I approached the prettiest girl in the entirety of Rio Frio Middle School in tiny Rio Frio, Colorado: Jazz Delgado. Her beauty, I thought then, radiated bright and warm like a life-giving star, and I stated, with the utmost of delusional confidence: “Damn, mami, you lookin’ so good. If you were a booger, I’d pick you first.”
A shadow of abject horror clouded her face. As the blood and color dropped from her countenance, she became the same shade of whitish-gray as that of a bar of soap. Slowly she became embalmed with embarrassment. It began at her feet and it frothed up to her face. She became like stone. Little cracks began to spread through her cheeks. Her face began to chip and eventually her entire person collapsed into dust at my feet.
Some of the kids on the playground broke into a laughter so hysterical that the collective sound of it howled like a jet moments before crash. They were pointing at me and saying, “Ahhhhh! Holy shit. She just turned to dust, yo!”
Jazz’s friends, though–they weren’t laughing. They shrieked with horror. “YOU KILLED HER. YOU EMBARRASSED HER TO DEATH, YOU CREEP.” Then they went back to flirting with the boys whose ideas of courtship were serenading each girl with the chorus of Akinyele’s “Put it in Your Mouth.”
I never felt so bad in my entire life. I was hoping the deadly phantom of Embarrassment would take me next, but the bastard had something far worse in mind for me. The bastard phantom of Embarrassment took a liking to me that afternoon. And it was then that it decided to be my lifelong companion.
So–I thought–I flew a little too closely to the sun that afternoon near the basketball courts at the Rio Frio Middle School playground. Maybe there was something to that stupid myth that I barely understood. Boys like me are best left to admire such radiant beauty from a distance….
Now, though, with 18 years (more or less) having gone by to reflect on the incident– as well as to experience countless other ignoble acts– I realize my personal myth was never that of Icarus. It is that of Sisyphus. Life is literally nothing, but waking up every fucking morning and rolling a stupid fucking rock up a stupid fucking hill, just as I have done literally every day before. I have woken up and pushed that stupid fucking rock of school, of loneliness, of frustration, despair, and disappointment, and of work, and career, and of all the petty, boring, superfluous chores inherent therein. Get that stupid fucking rock up that stupid fucking hill, go to bed and feel good about it, wake up and do the stupid fucking thing all over again.
This is life.
Sisyphus was given such a punishment because of his cleverness and deceit. I’m no different. No matter how hard and often I may try to outwit and out-scheme the daily requirements of life, the more I am destined to push stupid fucking rocks up stupid fucking hills. There is no outwitting life. There is only acceptance or non-acceptance.
Camus rarely had an actual point, but one of the few times he did was when he asserted that we must picture Sisyphus as being happy with his curse. If this is life, we sort of have a choice to either love it or leave it. And if we don’t love it, why would we continue to live it?
The point of all of this–if there is a point– is simply that Sisyphus was tortured because of what he chose to worship. He worshipped power and notoriety and cleverness, and he was rewarded with a punishment that nullified or used those attributes against him. His notoriety was the only reason he was punished in the first place, and no amount of power or cleverness was going to help him get out of that situation… ever.
And my thesis is that it’s just the same for all of us. That the things we worship are the exact things that entrap us in our own patterns of misery.
2. IN WHICH WE CLARIFY TERMS
So let’s talk about worship. It’s something of a loaded word. Some readers may even be chafing at being accused of worshipping anything. A few years back disinfo published a transcript of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech to the graduates of Kenyon University in Ohio, and disinfonauts flipped monkey shit. The two main aspects of contention were Wallace’s use of the words “worship” (people didn’t seem to think it was an accurate word choice–if they didn’t set up shrines and pray to something, they couldn’t be technically worshipping because Merriam-Webster, or whatever) and “atheism” (if you’re going to make any claim about atheism, you better make fucking sure that you’re a card-carrying goddamn atheist, because the only thing those assholes actually believe in, apparently, is that splitting hairs is not a waste of time). Meanwhile, the entire point of the speech went unheeded in a way that was somehow entirely appropriate.
So, for right now I’m going to offer a word as an alternative to worship, because I don’t want people to miss the real point of what I’m about to write. Before we get to the end of this stupid thing, I will again argue that there is something specific that we all worship, and that most of our beliefs are religious in nature, but I’m not there quite yet. So instead of “worship” I’m going to use the word “value.”
Maybe we don’t worship certain things, but we sure as hell value them. We may not worship youth or beauty or money or power. But a lot of us sure do value them quite a bit. So can we agree, for the moment, that we all have things that we value?
Ok, cool. Thanks. That was easy, and now we can move forward. And where I want to go with this is to touch on the primary point of Wallace’s speech: that we don’t actually take the time to understand why we value what we value, and that’s sort of the nefarious and malignant thing about them. Valuing power in and of itself is not necessarily evil, and in fact many smart people believe the pursuit of power–when done mindfully and with control–is a “need” of each and every human life. We need power over our own lives and some feelings of control. People who feel out of control tend to not be very happy and/or don’t usually function very well. What is evil is that we’re not actually conscious of what we’re valuing and therefore we pursue these things blindly and without control. When we’re not aware of the whys and hows of our pursuit of power, we do some pretty repugnant things to get it. Trying to make ourselves beautiful and attractive is a natural instinct and part of being human. But when left unchecked, it becomes a perversion, and the instinct creates more harm than help. And that is only really possible when we as individuals are sociopathic, or if we’re not actually conscious of what we’re doing.
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