For the Irishman, M.K.
In my limited opinion, the essence of the speech was tolerance and patience – two basic, inherent, innate virtues common to all human life (maybe even animals). From tolerance and patience springs up observation of people, of events, of general things around us. And this observation is a root of understanding. This understanding then later on springs into varying perceptions of life which results in the element of “choice” the DFW talks about. I know towards the end he explicitly states that this has nothing to do with religion, but for me, personally, it has a lot to do with religious teachings. I believe that humanity is rooted deeply in religion and there is a reason why patience, tolerance, perseverance have been given the highest regard in Islam.
It was a little hard for me to relate to the part where DFW states that one believes in being the absolute center of the universe and that one is the focal point of all one’s experiences. I believe in nothingness of the self which disregards the “I’m the center of the universe” point. And my belief in chaos theory disregards that my experiences are mine alone, were originated because of me and that I was the cause, result, effect of it all. All our experiences are “shared”, and the individual experiences aren’t individual in the sense that they are mine per se, but that it “happened” to happen to me.
I particularly admired how he discredited the crux of his speech (tolerance, patience) as being moral, virtuous, ethical principles that one “must” live by. Perhaps in the modern era these words have taken on a negative meaning because of the prevailing ideologies of freedom on one side, and, say, religious extremism on another. Maybe also because the new generation is actually repulsed by use of these words. They are too, as DFW himself said, didactic. I too loathe it when someone lectures me on issues like morality and what not. But all meanings & interpretations of the words aside, the reality is that these are the intrinsic elements that make us human.
I totally, completely agree with his argument on choice and education and how the latter grooms the former. What he calls knowledge is what I call information. And what he calls awareness, is what I call Knowledge. Awareness is an offshoot of Knowledge. We are spoon-fed with information from the very beginning of our conscious life, into our school life, professional life, and personal life. Knowledge however encompasses not only that which tends to our material, world life, but also our spiritual life. Hence first understanding what “awareness” is, what choice is, and how to put it in practice. An excellent example of “choice” is prevalent is a natural process of perceiving colors. My perception of the color red will be different to yours. So choice is hard-wired into us already. I chose to interpret what DFW says “the mystical oneness of all things deep down” as something relevant to the Oneness of God. You choose your meaning according to your set of beliefs.
Once a driver of a huge van carrying a heavy load of furniture happened to rashly cut our car from the front. My immediate response was to complain of how ignorant the driver was which I made vocal enough for my significant other to hear. In the brief moment, my mind had jumped to conclusions. That he must be uneducated, illiterate, having no regard for other people on the road (ironically, though not as explicitly, I was doing the same subconsciously). I had presumed that he must be on drugs which was fueled by my bias against truck drivers. That’s when my significant other cut in, and told me how I was the one sitting in the air-conditioned car, how I had to reach my destination with ease, and had no right whatsoever to complain since I was more blessed. He was right. Now that I think about it, the various possibilities of reasons why that particular driver rushed past us make me sink in shame. Maybe he was paid for every trip he made, the more shifts he covered, the more money he made, and the more money he made, the more he could secure his family’s financial well-being. Maybe the sweltering heat was coming down harshly on him and he thought of unloading the burden and reaching home as quickly as possible. But with that momentary, harsh judgment and bitter pronouncements on his character, I had stooped far too low than my supposed “education” allowed me. I, too, was a monster then. If not in my actions then at least in my thoughts.
And this is what DFW specifically addresses too. Observation of the world around us frees us from the grandeur that is self-absorption. Lately, I’ve been baffled by our lack of introspection, that is to truly ponder upon the self, the big questions of life and death and so on. Ironically, this reflects my own preoccupation with self, that I completely turn a blind eye to observation – to contemplate on those and that around me. While there is an obvious distinction between self-absorption and introspection, abundance of the latter can eventually lead to arrogant self-centeredness. A writing course I took a few months ago expressly laid stress on the importance of honing one’s observational skills as they play a pivotal role in telling stories. If I am to stand in the queue of DFW’s check-out counter, and fail to observe and understand the surroundings, I will be too caught up in my own head to make sense of what is happening around me, and why?
Sympathy, empathy, appreciation, identification, recognition, realization all are a result of profound understanding of ourselves and those around us. This comprehension gives us a choice – a choice to be either happy or sad. Choice is a blessing, and a freedom in itself.
(On a side note, I know all this is inclined towards Choice or Free-Will & that no where has predestination or fate been included, but that is a separate discussion altogether. I believe it is all balanced in the great scheme of things. And only God knows best.)