It has been over a year since I finished Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace and not a day has gone by without thinking back to a passage, description or idea. It was the first book to make me burst out laughing, make me feel immensely sad, to say “No, no no, why did you stop?!” aloud after reading the final sentence, to keep me awake reading until 5:00am, to be made to feel that at times, someone had nestled themselves deep in my consciousness and brought thoughts and feelings to fruition that previously had been annoying background noise, indecipherable mind-chatter.
Below is an account of the takeaways that come back to me most often.
I am not claiming that anything Wallace said, or what I derived from it is in any way new, it is that the passages are what allowed me to internalise them. I believe that in some form or another, most, if not all the answers are out there. You are searching for the presentation that resonates with you, and even in that fortunate case, there is still the timing to take into account, that if you are not primed for, a great lesson will pass you by as mere words. It just so happened that Wallace’s writing style and my receptiveness was the perfect storm. Reading Infinite Jest even a few months earlier could have been a disaster and ended prematurely at page 9.
A recovering drug addict, Don Gately, laying in hospital having been shot, refusing pain medication as to stay true to his Alcoholic Anonymous pledge, discusses the pain and relief the mind is capable of:
“No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering. But none of it’s as of now real. What’s real is the tube and Noxzema and pain. And this could be done just like the Old Cold Bird. He could just hunker down in the space between each heartbeat and make each heartbeat a wall and live in there. Not let his head look over. What’s unendurable is what his own head could make of it all. What his head could report to him, looking over and ahead and reporting. But he could choose not to listen. He hadn’t quite gotten this before now, how it wasn’t just the matter of riding out the cravings for a Substance: everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news you then somehow believed.”
I have utilised this every day, multiple times a day. It has been overwhelming positive. Applicable from the root of banal, to the apex of fear. There’s less wall hopping for me these days, a much appreciated rest.
Repeatedly becoming lost in the text until you learn to never let go. I believe this to be the fundamental reason why someone like me, with horrific memory recollection skills, can keep a reasonable account of 1,099 pages floating around in my head. I truly could not for the life of me tell you what television show, movie or Internet article I consumed a year ago — I would probably struggle to tell you what it was yesterday. Having to work for the content made for an entirely different experience. During the particularly brutal slogs through a few select chapters, I realised: if you maintain a deep level of concentration, no matter what the subject at hand is, anything can be experienced with interest. This has been particularly helpful while carrying out projects that redefine monotony. A pursuit of mastery over being entertained can radically mutate your feelings towards the task. If you believe something to be beneath you and not worth your attention, there is an argument to be made that you have not looked close enough.
This was a journey where the initial realisation made the world feel monochromatic, machine-like. Although now still not entirely chromatic, it has been liberating.
It seems unbearably obvious in retrospect. It’s that, being proficient at any one thing is not about magic, luck, talent, or “wow I wish I could do that”, as it is entirely a result of systematic hard work. For a long while this lead to a feeling that I would dare say nearly succumb to nihilism, but fortunately stopped at: life being nothing more than a game of allocating time and resources. Now I view people’s skills as being a result of years of work, sacrifice and most importantly: failure, this has been beneficial for two reasons.
It has enabled me to truly appreciate and empathise with what has gone into gaining that level of proficiency. Not all skills are comparable, some physical, some creative, some ridiculous, but an hour is an hour, a year is a year and a strained relationship is just so. I believe it brings a certain degree of sincerity to appreciating people’s skills that are outside of your domain knowledge, you stop attributing skill to magic, and replace it with sacrifice.
A normalised view of how skill is developed brings about a very level playing field. No longer do I see something and think “I wish I could do that”, instead: “Is that something I am interested in enough to dedicate the time that I know will be demanded of it?”. Although nothing more than linguistic gymnastics, this has stopped me from mindlessly pursuing multiple interests on whims. It has brought about the understanding that there’s a precious resource of time and energy and it must be distributed according to what I wish to be proficient in, and something looking cool no longer cuts the proverbial mustard as a reason to begin a new pursuit. It is entirely cliche (have you noticed a theme yet?), but given enough time and dedication I believe I can become skilled in nearly anything, and that is both highly comforting and paralysing. Paralysing as it forces you to face the reality that your time has meaning, and how you spend your time has very real consequences. Worse of all, you can no longer blame magic when things do not go your way; you must work harder, and there is no escaping that.
Graham Rader is a young player climbing up the ranks of Enfield Tennis Academy, but has doubts about his game, so turns to Lyle, the soft spoken, sweat licking guru, for some advice:
‘Well suppose, suppose I were to give you a key ring with ten keys. With, no, with a hundred keys, and I were to tell you that one of these keys will unlock it, this door we’re imagining opening in onto all you want to be, as a player. How many of the keys would you be willing to try?’
‘Well I’d try every darn one,’ Rader tells Lyle.
Lyle never whispers, but it’s just about the same. ‘Then you are willing to make mistakes, you see. You are saying you will accept 99% error. The paralyzed perfectionist you say you are would stand there before that door. Jingling the keys. Afraid to try the first key.’
This was a slow burn for me. Months passed until it sunk in, although the message is obscenely direct, I did not believe it was applicable to me. I believe only a few times per lifetime do you get to truly uncover a part of your self that you have previously had zero inkling of. I dare say some never do. I am, was — recovering, at least — the worst kind of perfectionist, the one that does not even bother to try. That is not to say the person who is so obsessed with perfection that they never deliver or release is doing all that much better, but at least they are gaining experience, developing their work, instead of tending to a growing list of what if’s and a diminishing self-respect. The person that does not try is intolerable, I would go so far as saying they are arrogant, that the scenario they believe can be simulated so easily in their minds eye, is so well thought out, thorough and complete, that they can do without the experience gained from even a failed attempt.
This paired nicely with the new found appreciation for learning. No longer did I seek perfectionism, to the detriment of even beginning. With the mysticism surrounding learning being removed, and with an understanding that for the next two, maybe three years I will continually, unfalteringly, fail, and fail miserably, over, and over again. And there’s not a damn thing that can be done about it. Can you imagine how heard learning Russian is when you are crippled by the fear of looking stupid when conversing with a native after your first month of study? That deep down I somehow demanded myself to be already fluent. And I was not, so, I did not try.
I am going to take up learning the drums in the future, and am quite looking forward to spending a few years flailing wildly at a drum kit, not having a damn clue about music theory or what the best snare drum is. Armed with nothing but a deep respect for the process, and I will be rewarded, one day, when I sit at the kit and start drumming without even having to think about it and the days where I couldn’t drum are long since forgotten. While in a parallel universe, I am still sat in my bedroom, air drumming, saying “I’ll start next week, as soon as I can air drum this one song perfectly”.
The most prolific theme throughout is addiction. Although there are some absolutely horrifying, extreme chapters, it was watching Hal’s slow descent into apathy through the abuse of marijuana and the commentary on our unhealthy consumption of television to be most terrifying. Even though the imagery of Poor Tony going through heroin withdrawal in a bathroom stall may unfortunately be forever embedded in my mind, I like to believe that is not in scope for my own future. The analysis of the more widely accepted drugs: coffee, alcohol, marijuana etc. was, for me, an order of magnitude more insidious. The hard drugs felt like the intravenous equivalent of ripping the band-aid, taking a sledge hammer to your life, and within months it could very well all be over. This is discussed and understood early on in your development, but rarely are the seemingly innocuous addictions given the respect I believe they deserve. I viewed the vices that won’t quite kill you, but will take a piece of you everyday until for all intents and purposes, you could very well be, to be harrowing.
Where it has so perfectly assimilated with your life, you have become complicit in the daily pursuit of it, where a life before it can no longer be recalled, much less considered, where its ostensibly light grip allows you to believe that you do not need it and that you can quit whenever you want and just like doing it, it’s my thing, you know, where it has become less (if at all) about pleasure than it is about mindless habit, where all your friends do it, where it is the foundation on top of which you have built your life, where days can go by and it is all you have done without you being aware, where you have been reduced to a reactive slave to an underlying addictive mechanism you potentially may never understand.
To find, one day, six years has passed. You have barely left your bedroom while you have played World of Warcraft for eight to fourteen hours a day, the barrier between reality and virtual has degraded beyond comprehension, every single aspect of your life outside of the game has been neglected. Six years where you have not grown as a person, as you have been adequately satiated, kept in a hole of lethargy. Your daily low level background anxiety being tended to, the constant back and forth between hunger and feeding, until one day your needs are not met and it crumbles right before you — the illusion, that is, the white lies even you yourself had begun to believe. All over a video game. Pixels. A fun way to the pass the time with a friend. Damage that, even to this day you are diligently working towards reversing, even with the underlying belief that no matter what, something will always be broken, there will always be a neural pathway dormant, with a history of what went on, waiting to be brought back to play.
My point is that, addiction manifests itself in so many forms that if there are leaflets and NHS services dedicated to it, you chose a good one, you’ll get help, sympathy — even a step-by-step guide. Each and every one must be taken seriously, as they creep up on you with such patience that you will unknowingly welcome it with open arms.
I now try to be very conscious of things having their pull on me, and once I identify it, see if I can continue without abusing or becoming consumed by it, and if a healthy relationship with it can be formed, then it becomes a great addition to my life, but if it is serially abused, it must be ripped out. The most beneficial aspect of this has been the ability to utilise things as tools, as opposed to them becoming ruling dependencies. Take the Internet as an example, the person that uses the Internet in short bursts, as a tool, someone that opens a browser with a mindful intention, a purpose, derives a great deal more than the one that vacuously scrolls for twelve hours, consumed. The benefits have been entirely lost within the unconscious pursuit.
Before Infinite Jest I had gone through a stint of reading ‘self help’ books, the 10 steps to happiness, the CEO’s morning routine, how to “win” “friends”. Infinite Jest taught me more about Life than potentially any one thing, not only that, but in a real, applicable way. Some may see this and almost look down upon me for believing that a fictional book stored some of the keys I needed to aide unlocking parts of my life, but as mentioned earlier, I do not believe this to be a matter of where you learn, but when and in what form. The lesson of persistence, and daily concentrated effort towards one well defined goal could easily have been digested while I, aged eight, militantly ate my bodyweight in Coco Pops© every morning to ensure I received the prize, but I was eight, and had other things on my mind.
Nevertheless, these lessons have stuck with me. There were no bullet points, road maps to success, it was simply one very sensitive, observant-to-a-fault human articulating what it is, exactly, to be human.
“And when he came back to, he was flat on his back on the beach in the freezing sand, and it was raining out of a low sky, and the tide was way out.”