Site Logo

Timeless Wisdom

Dipping back into David Foster Wallace’s “This is Water”  commencement speech (turned book, previously referenced in my ‘stuck in traffic’ post), just because: a) it’s so full of wisdom that’s especially important and increasingly lost in the world today (seriously, listen to the whole thing); b) I end up referencing it to people fairly often; c) I came across an old, eerily parallel ‘lesson’…but I’ll get there.

So, the applicable Wisdom from the speech:

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. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. 


I’m somewhat obsessed nowadays with the “human condition” (another blog post currently circulating in my mind after a couple weeks off the grid): the aspects of people that transcend our individual uniqueness and the uniqueness of our time.  The qualities of life that all of us face, and struggle with, just as a result of being human.  The inherent life dynamics and challenges that are the same that were faced by our grandparents and their great grandparents.

Even outside our individual heads and solipsistic limitations, every generation likes to view themselves as unique, special, facing challenges that are only theirs.  There’s a bit of truth to this view, looking at the cycles of modernity, technology, war, liberation, etc – but the fact is that these are simply external variables placed upon each of us, aspects we are forced to contend with, but we do so from a place of timeless commonality.


Largely arising from my obsession with the human condition, last week I was reading a book called “Book of Direction to the Duties of the Heart” by Bahya Ibn Paquda, who lived in Spain in the 11th century.  The book was written in Judeo-Aramaic in the year 1040.  I was reading a translation from 1908.  It’s a nice book largely about the need for goodness/holiness/ethics/etc to arise from internally, that the processes of “the heart” should be the gauge of sin or righteousness, as opposed to simple actions which can have devious and selfish intentions at their core.

But as much as I agree with that contention (which corresponds to my core argument against most “service learning” and “social justice” efforts) that’s not my point here.  My point is the following excerpt:

Of all things the most necessary to him who would serve God [defined as living with moral virtues and righteous conduct] is trust in God. . . . . . . . If one does not trust in God, one trusts in something, or in some one, else. And he who quits his trust otherwhere than in the One Eternal, removes God and His ruling providence from over him, and puts himself in the hands of that thing or person in whom he trusts. . . . . . . . 

He who trusts in his own wisdom or abilities, or in the strength of his body and in his own efforts, will labor in vain, weaken his powers, and find his skill inadequate to the attainment of his desires; . . . and trust in wealth may be the destruction of the soul. 

He who trusts in God will be led to serve none other than Him, in that he will not build his hopes on a man, and will not wait, in anxious anticipation, for any human being; and he will not serve them, or try to curry favor with them; and he will not be hypocritical to please mankind, to the detriment of his service of God; and he will have no fear of man nor of human fault-finding. He will be independent, and strip off from himself the livery of human favors and benefactions.


So, times change, the world moves forward, generations are born and give birth and die, and a guy like David Foster Wallace, with an education and access to literature unheard of even 100 years ago, is able to put into poetic prose a concept and challenge relevant to all of us today.  But “today” doesn’t matter, as DFW and Rabbi Bahya were on the same page regarding the human condition, albeit 965 years apart.

Closing on DFW’s extended point regarding the worship of age (not a focus of Bahya probably due to the life expectancy at the time being under 35 years), wealth, intellect, power … enjoy:

But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along on the fuel of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. 

But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about in the great outside world of wanting and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.