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It is a shame, really, that doctors spend so little time in the communities where they practice. If we did, we might come to see our patients from a different angle, as real people on equal terms, capable of returning more than they receive. With greater depth of field, we might more easily grasp their worries and woes, and recognize our failure to help them. We might be fed by their gratitude, motivated by friendship instead of their demands or our sense of sacred duty or the lure of the almighty dollar.

— David Loxtercamp, “Facing Our Morality”

For better or worse, we have made romance the basis for marriage. Falling in love is supposed to be the reason why people end up in matrimony. (The Church, you will recall, doesn’t commit herself on the subject. Romance or family arrangement, it’s all the same to her, provided they know what they’re doing and are willing to stick with it till they die.) Romance as the justification for marriage is pretty much a folk invention of less than eight hundred years’ standing. On the whole, it’s not a bad one at all. It’s mostly better than worse. For if marriage itself is the mystery written small —if it is indeed the earthly image of the union of Christ and his Church—then it would be hard to find a better starting point than the glimpsing of that same mystery in the Beloved. Dante never married Beatrice, but we feel obliged to; all in all, it is rather a good idea. As a matter of fact, the only thing wrong with it is the lies about it.

One of them I’ve already mentioned. It’s the “You are my destiny” bit. Only God can be that, and any attempt to put so large a demand on a mere creature always comes a cropper. Besides, in marriage it’s hard to keep up the appearance of being somebody’s destiny; it’s even hard to look like a halfway decent agent of destiny. Beatrice burning the toast, or leaving the socks unmended, is practically unrecognizable.

— Robert Farrar Capon, Bed and Board

By its nature a serious business

As for language, the philosophes might remind us that the written word and an oratory based upon it have a content—a semantic, paraphrasable content. Whenever language is the principal medium of communication—especially language controlled by the rigors of print—an idea, a fact, a claim is the inevitable result. The idea may be banal, the fact irrelevant, the claim false, but there is no escape from meaning when language is the instrument guiding one’s thought. Though one may accomplish it from time to time, it is very hard to say nothing when employing a written sentence. What else is exposition good for? Words have very little to recommend them except as carriers of meaning. The shapes of written words are not especially interesting to look at. Even the sounds of sentences of spoken words are rarely engaging except when composed by those with extraordinary poetic gifts. If a sentence refuses to issue forth a fact, a request, a question, an assertion, an explanation, it is nonsense, a mere grammatical shell. As a consequence, a language-centered discourse such as was characteristic of eighteenthand nineteenth-century America tends to be both content-laden and serious, all the more so when it takes its form from print.

It is serious because meaning demands to be understood. A printed sentence calls upon its author to say something, upon its reader to know the import of what is said. And when an author and reader are struggling with semantic meaning, they are engaged in the most serious challenge to the intellect. This is especially the case with the act of reading, for authors are not always trustworthy. They lie, they become confused, they over-generalize, they abuse logic and, sometimes, common sense. The reader must come armed, in a serious state of intellectual readiness. This is not easy because the reader comes to the text alone. In reading, one’s responses are isolated, one’s intellect thrown back on its own resources. To be confronted by the cold abstractions of printed sentences is to look upon language bare, without the assistance of either beauty or community. Thus, reading is by its nature a serious business.

— Neil Postman, Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future

[Post-Enlightenment] people now believed we were not created primarily to serve God for his benefit. Rather, God had made the world for our benefit. But, Taylor goes on, it was this deistic concept of God—not so much the traditional Christian view—that the Lisbon earthquake threw into crisis. He wrote:

Once we claim to understand the universe and how it works; once we even try to explain how it works by invoking its being created for our benefit, then this explanation is open to clear challenge. . . . In Lisbon, 1755, it seems clearly not to have [worked for our benefit]. So the immanent order ups the ante.

If you believe that the world was made for our benefit by God, then horrendous suffering and evil will shake your understanding of life. Horrendous evil is now a much bigger problem for those with a residue of Christianity—with a belief in a distant God who exists for our benefit—than it was for a full-blown orthodox faith not weakened by the immanent frame. In other words, suffering and evil disprove God’s existence only if you have a particular view of God that is already a departure from the more traditional, orthodox view. The skeptical conclusion is largely inherent in the premises. You could argue that, within the immanent frame, the game is rigged against the God of the Bible when we come to evil and suffering.

— Timothy Keller, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering

In his commencement address at Kenyon College, Wallace suggested that

learning how to think really means learning to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

Wallace is saying something important: the ability to direct our attention as we will is a basic condition for living well. This sounds about two-thirds right to me, but I want to quarrel with his language of “choice”—the language of mere decision—which makes it sound like “construct[ing] meaning from experience” is somehow arbitrary, and insist rather that meaning and agency are tied in interesting ways to our efforts to reconcile ourselves to a world that is what it is, and find ways to love it.

Wallace states the central problem of life as one of critical self- awareness, as opposed to self-absorption. “[A] huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.” In particular, “everything in my immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe . . .” The task, then, is one of “somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of the self.” His point, he makes clear, is not a moral one about being altruistic. The point is not to be deluded, “lost in abstract argument inside my head, instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me . . .”

The reason to worry about being self-centered is that it makes it hard to cope with life. “There happen to be whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches. One such part involves boredom, routine and petty frustration.” He describes the experience of getting off work, exhausted, and having to endure traffic and a crowded supermarket before getting home.

The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing is gonna come in. Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way.

Wallace offers for the graduates a train of thought about fat, ugly SUV drivers, and points out that patriotic or religious bumper stickers always seem to be on the most disgustingly selfish vehicles. The crowd begins to cheer, and Wallace intervenes: “This is an example of how NOT to think, though.” Then he gives some examples of what he has in mind by way of choosing to think differently.

In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

Wallace concedes that “none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible.” Such generosity is meant as a corrective to our default setting, which is to be sure we know what reality is, to be sure it revolves around us, and therefore not to consider “possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable” when it comes to others who stand in our way. But “if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options.”

This impatient, hostile self-absorption is spot-on as a description of my own default state, while driving especially. And Wallace is surely right about the need for charity of interpretation in our dealings with others, not least for the sake of our own tranquillity. The criticism I would like to make of his account begins with a seemingly minor point: when he suggests that the generous response results from “learn[ing] how to pay attention,” I think he has misdescribed his own examples. They are acts of imagination, not attention. He is positing scenarios that will engage his sympathies. On this point turn some crucial matters.

The first is a practical question about how effective or sustainable such an approach is likely to be. Wallace recommends a basically Stoic strategy of minimizing one’s pain by changing one’s beliefs about the irritants that are disturbing one. The problem with the Stoic strategy is that beliefs involve states of affairs in the world, so it isn’t simply up to us to decide to believe what we want. It would be nonsensical to come into a building and announce, “It’s raining outside, but I don’t believe it.” Short of such outright contradiction, one has only so much interpretive latitude before one’s imaginings take on a hallucinatory aspect. Forrest Gump has a positive affect that is impervious to the world, but there is something defective about him.

Despite his repeated references to attention, Wallace’s core suggestion in the speech is that “you get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.” But is this not, precisely, “to see and interpret everything through this lens of the self” and thus reproduce the problem that he is trying to solve? Wallace speaks a subjectivist language in which we posit the world, and do so according to the free movement of our will. His solution is thus emblematic of the problem we are addressing in this book: we have an uncertain grasp of the world as something with a reality of its own. Wallace’s therapy is offered in the spirit of virtual reality.

Iris Murdoch, like Wallace, is impressed by the problem of self-enclosure. But she suggests a different way out of one’s head—what we might call the Epicurean way. The Epicurean recommendation, in contrast to the Stoic, is that if you are being disturbed by some unwanted emotion, it is a shift of attention, rather than a willful effort of belief, that will deliver you from it. As she writes:

Where strong emotions of sexual love, or of hatred, resentment, or jealousy are concerned, “pure will” can usually achieve little. It is small use telling oneself “Stop being in love, stop feeling resentment, be just.” What is needed is a reorientation which will provide an energy of a different kind, from a different source. Notice the metaphors of orientation and of looking . . . Deliberately falling out of love is not a jump of the will, it is the acquiring of new objects of attention and thus of new energies as a result of refocusing.

Murdoch’s therapy is predicated on realism: new energies come from real objects that one becomes interested in. This strikes me as more thoroughly liberating than the effort of reinterpretation that Wallace recommends. It is less concerned with moral improvement or being just. You simply abandon the object that is tormenting you. You walk away, and don’t even notice that you have done so, because your energies are focused elsewhere.

— Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming and Individual in an Age of Distraction

[Some] people have a concept of God so fundamentally false that it would be better for them to doubt than to remain devout. The more devout they are, the uglier their faith will become since it is based on a lie. Doubt in such a case is not only highly understandable, it is even a mark of spiritual and intellectual sensitivity to error, for their picture is not of God but an idol.

— Os Guinness, God in the Dark

Along with your whisk, you will also want a supply of wooden spoons. Experiment will have to guide you to the most desirable sizes and shapes. There are pointed ones which will fit sharp-cornered pans, flat ones which will scrape bottoms to a fare-thee-well, and there are round ones, doughnut-shaped ones, oval ones, slotted ones and truncated ones—all waiting for your fancy to light. Add to that the fact that they can be had in assorted sizes, up to the length of a man’s forearm, and you have the full picture. The next time you see a display of them, give in to the temptation you have been fighting since childhood: Buy yourself one of every shape and size in the store. There are few indulgences in this life that can match this one for safety, economy, and long-term supportability. Besides, you will set your cooking progress ahead by a full year or two. Your battery of wooden spoons is not only good for the ego; they are kind to porcelain, gentle with aluminum, easy on the purse, and, as non-conductors, ideal for snitching samples from boiling pots. No more blistered lower lips from accidental contact with the bottom of one of Satan’s stainless steel spoons. True enough, they burn easily and become cracked with age; but then, so do we all. It’s nice to have a few things around that make no pretense of imperishability.

— Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection