24 April 2015
What if they're angry for a reason?
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace is one of the funniest things I've ever read. The story of his one-week cruise aboard the MV Zenith - which Wallace rechristens the Nadir - was recommended to me after I complained on Facebook about being accosted by a man convinced I was in the market for "pampering".
Wallace is the perfect essayist because he combines whip-smart humour with
pathos and profundity. Recently, I rewatched his 2005 commencement speech at
Kenyon College. (I love these and can also recommend Nora Ephron at Wellesley
and Amy Poehler at Harvard).
In it, he warns students about "blind certainty: a close-mindedness that amounts to an imprisonment so total that the prisoner doesn't even know he's locked up."
"Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am
the absolute centre of the universe," he confesses. "The realest, most vivid,
and most important person in existence."
When it comes to politics, it is easy to see many people with these views. In fact, it's the same for all of us. Wallace suggests it's our "default setting".
The challenge he sets these graduates, is "making a conscious choice about how to think and what to pay attention to".
What if, he suggests, the people in your traffic jam are driving SUVs because they have been in horrible car accidents and this is the only vehicle in which they feel safe?
What if the woman in the supermarket queue who just screamed at her child is
not usually like this, but has been up for three nights holding the hand of her
husband who is dying of bone cancer?
I love this message. It's a call to empathy, and a challenge to consider the possibility that, as Wallace puts it: "Perhaps others have much harder or tedious or more painful lives than I do." It's what I try to remember when someone is trying to sell me life insurance over the phone.
But it's hard. And perhaps hardest when we are dealing not with a stranger, but with someone whose motivations we feel sure we know. When "blind certainty" strikes, and we don't want to consider any possibility other than the obvious explanation that this person is a pain, malicious, bigoted, attention-seeking. When Camila Batmanghelidjh of Kids Company ventured to suggest some reasons why kids might be ransacking their high street during the riots, did we want to hear it?
One person really does know why each of us are the way we are.
"Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did!" says the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at a well. He doesn't use his insights - the knowledge that she has had five husbands - against her, and she appears to welcome being known, even though what he reveals about her could have been a cause of shame.
We will never have the sort of insight that Jesus has. But we do have a clear instruction to love one another, and we can pray for the sort of wisdom and discernment that might help us do that. We can pray to see other people as God sees them. We can pray for empathy.
"If you really learn how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options," says Wallace. "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 lit the stars."
It's what I'm going to try to do next time someone working on commission offers me pampering.
Madeleine Davies is the deputy news editor of Church Times.