On a long drive this morning, I dipped into an unplayed podcast of my favorite NPR show, “Fresh Air.” The first part of the episode highlighted an archived interview between host Terry Gross and the late writer David Foster Wallace (you might remember him from one of his many novels, like Infinite Jest, or his moving and insightful 2005 graduation speech at Kenyon College, “This is Water” or from Jason Segel’s portrayal in “The End of the Tour.” ).
What caught my attention was when, in response to one of Terry’s questions, David Foster Wallace dropped this boulder of observational wisdom: “…whenever in my own life I know there’s hard stuff I’m not dealing with, what happens is I’ll jack it into 5th gear and begin moving so fast, and doing so much, and trying to experience so much that I’m really sort of trying to drown it out.”
When I heard that, I let out an instinctive, “wow.” What I really meant was, “AMEN.”
How many of you have experienced this inertia? Things like: I’m exhausted, so I drink more coffee to stay awake. I’m emotionally spent, so I pick a fight to feel a victory. I am grieving deeply over a loss, so I make plans with friends to drown it out. I feel a deep sense of sadness over something profound, so I address it with irony and sarcasm.
In Western cultures, we are raised to believe that Happiness should be our neutral. That it’s our birthright. That it’s what we deserve and what is required of us. And that makes the negative emotions I mentioned above (what I’ll lump into the bucket of “sadness”) feel unacceptable, avoidable, and even ungrateful. So we keep moving, faster and faster, toward what we think is happiness and away from what we fear is sadness.
But what if, on the path to pursuing renewed happiness, we could actually let ourselves feel the sadness? What if we could just stop and face it?
What if we took it one step even further and made the bold and difficult choice to strive for peace, not happiness? To slow down the treadmill and just be with what is; to experience whatever emotion is waiting right there, already with us.
If peace, instead of happiness, could become our desired neutral we might just find the presence and consciousness we need to be able to confront our sadness so that we can find joy in our happiness, and experience it as a gift rather than a given.
I’m a work-in-peace-progress every minute, every day. My hope is that, like me, you’ve found David Foster Wallace’s statement an inspiration and a reminder. Wishing you a slow, easy, peaceful day!