On a walk yesterday afternoon, I watched as a seagull rose and swooped along the beach. Straight up it went, with great intention, then back down to the shore. Again and again.
As I got closer, I recognized its repetitive dance — the gull was dropping its crustacean dinner from up high, then diving down to pluck a delicate morsel from the shattered shell.
“Aren’t we lucky,” I thought, in a moment of gratitude, “that we don’t have to forage for our food like that. We have grocery stores…”
And then I laughed out loud.
Just two hours earlier, I’d been at the aforementioned grocery store and in no way embodied gratitude. Quite the contrary. I was pretty ornery and cursing every atom within a 500-foot radius — the damn rotten produce, the shoppers on cell phones, the lack of parmigiano reggiano in the cheese case.
From that perspective, the seagull’s maneuvers seemed enviable. From that perspective…
That’s when I remembered this brilliant piece of observation by the late author David Foster Wallace. It’s from a commencement speech he presented in 2005.
[ Though a little long, if you’ve ever found yourself mumbling like a crazy person in front of the cheese case, this is for you… ]
“the supermarket…is hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out.
You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle, and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long.
Which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register, who is overworked at a job whose daily tedium and meaninglessness surpass the imagination of any of us here at a prestigious college…but anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and you pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine and you get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death.
And then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart with the one crazy wheel that pulls maddeningly to the left, all the way out through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive, rush-hour traffic, et cetera et cetera.
Everyone here has done this, of course — but it hasn’t yet been part of your graduates’ actual life routine, day after week after month after year.
But it will be, and many more dreary, annoying, seemingly meaningless routines besides…
Except that’s not the point.
The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in.
Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to food-shop. Because my natural default setting is that situations like this are really all about me, about MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem, for all the world, like everybody else is just in my way and who the fuck are all these people in my way?
And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem here in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line, and look at how deeply unfair this is: I’ve worked really hard all day and I’m starved and tired and I can’t even get home to eat and unwind because of all these stupid goddamn people.
Or, of course, if I’m in a more socially conscious. liberal arts form of my default setting, I can spend time in the end-of-the-day traffic jam being angry and disgusted at all the huge, stupid, lane-blocking SUVs and Hummers and V-12 pickup trucks, burning their wasteful, selfish, forty-gallon tanks of gas, and I can dwell on the fact that the patriotic or religious bumper-stickers always seem to be on the biggest, most disgustingly selfish vehicles, driven by the ugliest, most inconsiderate and aggressive drivers, who are rudely talking on cell phones as they cut people off in order to get just twenty stupid feet ahead in the traffic jam, and I can think about how our children’s children will despise us for wasting all the future’s fuel and probably screwing up the climate, and how spoiled and stupid and selfish and disgusting we all are, and how it all just sucks, and so on and so forth.
Look, if I choose to think this way, fine, lots of us do—except that thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice.
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.
The thing is that there are obviously different ways to think about these kinds of situations.
In this traffic, all these vehicles stuck and idling in my way: It’s not impossible that some of these people in SUVs have been in horrible auto accidents in the past and now find driving so traumatic that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive; or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am—it is actually I who am in HIS way.
Or I can choose to force myself to consider the likelihood that everyone else in the supermarket’s checkout line is just as bored and frustrated as I am, and that some of these people actually have harder, more tedious and painful lives than I do, overall.
And so on.
Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you are “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it’s hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you’re like me, some days you won’t be able to do it, or you just flat-out won’t want to.
But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line — maybe she’s not usually like this; maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of her husband who’s dying of bone cancer, or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a nightmarish, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.
Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible — it just depends what you want to consider.
If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is and who and what is really important — if you want to operate on your default setting — then you, like me, probably will not consider possibilities that aren’t pointless and annoying..
But if you’ve really learned how to think, how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options.
It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars — compassion, love, the subsurface unity of all things.”
If you are at all moved and/or inspired and/or humbled by this, please thank my friend and fellow blogger C.B. Wentworth. She’s a fan of Wallace and writes of him often on her blog C.B. Wentworth. It’s how I came about to reading him.
“David Foster Wallace,” she writes, “looks at the world with a unique perspective that combines curiosity with sarcasm and wit.” One of his books she recommends is the complete text of Wallace’s commencement speech, entitled This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life. It is a thought-full, honest interpretation of our life here on this planet and how we have the power to change it — even at the grocery store!
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“Changing One’s Tune,” ©2012, Jen Payne, Branford, CT, with excerpt from This is Water by David Foster Wallace.
Photo ©2011, Jen Payne; Short Beach, Branford, Connecticut.