Infinite struggle

Okay okay, I admit it, I have an addiction. And no, it’s not pumpkin ale (well, maybe I have two addictions). My addiction is to the words of the late author David Foster Wallace. He is one of the most influential writers in modern literature that sadly, in 2008, at the age of 46, took his own life. If you have never heard of Wallace, please look him up. I promise, it will not be time wasted.

The following paragraphs are an excerpt taken from this speech (and here and here on youtube) Wallace gave to the 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College.

"There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?""

"If at this moment, you're worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise old fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don't be. I am not the wise old fish. The immediate point of the fish story is that the most obvious, ubiquitous, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude -- but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance. That may sound like hyperbole, or abstract nonsense."

“A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here's one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness, because it's so socially repulsive, but it's pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you've had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real -- you get the idea. But please don't worry that I'm getting ready to preach to you about compassion or other-directedness or the so-called "virtues." This is not a matter of virtue -- it's a matter of my choosing to do the work 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 self. Thinking this way is my natural default-setting. It's the automatic, unconscious way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I'm operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the center of the world and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world's priorities.”

If you actually had the time, or more importantly these days, the attention span, to listen to, or read the entire speech, Foster goes on to discuss just what freeing yourself from your hardwired self-centeredness requires. I will again let Wallace’s poetic words do the talking.

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways every day.”

I have been thinking about this for several weeks, trying to determine if I am a self-centered robot walking through life with my settings on default. Upon reflection I realized there is absolutely nothing sexy about changing a shitty diaper in the backseat of my late 90’s Chevy Malibu. There is nothing sexy about sharing my wife and I’s bed with our snoring, kicking, poop prone two-year-old son. Nor is it sexy to walk to the refrigerator for a midnight snack, in my underwear, and run into my mother, who moved in to help raise our son. I have come to the realization that now I AM that guy with the crying kid in the checkout line, and I AM that guy who is arguing with his wife on the cell phone about picking his kid up from daycare.

These things are very unsexy, and at times, very annoying, but they share a common theme: They are honest struggles occurring in the day-to-day trenches of my life that do not benefit me, but are made for the betterment of my son. They are proof that I am not on auto pilot. Proof that I think and care about others, which in the profession of photojournalism, is a very important thing.

Now, does this mean that I am completely selfless? Hell no – just ask my wife, I hate everyone and everything. My glass of whisky is always (metaphorically and realistically) half empty, but this exercise has opened the idea that before Cohen, I was probably a little too self involved. I was blind to my hard wired tendency to filter everything through my own lens, which means I was probably not honestly listening to anyone. But once Cohen entered my life, that changed very quickly. He became the center of attention. Every decision I made was with him in mind.

So I can thank Cohen for helping me realize that I am not the center of the universe. And if it had not been for him, I would probably sadly still be like all of you single, childless, self centered asshats out there, seeing everything through your own lenses of self.  So, next time your in that long shitty line at the post office filled with smelly crying babies, remember, your not the only one swimming in the water. Now it's time to enjoy a full glass of flat branch pumpkin ale!