“It’s a big challenge for us […] to get the kids to realize their potential, the fact that they’re a gift to somebody else–it’s not easy.” -Father Edwin Leahy, Headmaster of St. Benedict’s Prep
“Ben Turnbull’s unhappiness is obvious right from the book’s first page. But it never once occurs to him that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.” -David Foster Wallace, in reviewing John Updike’s Towards the End of Time
I almost didn’t want to use David Foster Wallace’s line, because it includes a word I don’t much like. In the end, I think that’s why DFW uses it. Selfishness, arrogance, and possessive disregard for others can look moody, dynamic, and impressive when they’re dressed up in the right clothes, but underneath the pose, they’re ugly and shallow and simple.
Turnbull isn’t an idiot. He’s not evil. It’s just that, according to DFW, he thinks that one escapes despair by being able “to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants,” and living by that self-involved power fantasy makes you act like an asshole. Some of my high schoolers who haven’t thought about it very much might agree with Turnbull’s idea of happiness–but then again, they’re high schoolers who haven’t thought about it very much. The fantasy of being able to “have” (and what a strange euphemism that is) anyone anytime makes sense, I think, for someone who’s just thinking about erotic touch for the first time, and who’s bewildered by that great roar. It’s an easy response to a confused, exciting, frightening topic. Hopefully, by the time we’re Turnbull’s age, we’ve realized it’s an adolescent fantasy and leave it behind with giga pets, smoking in the bathroom, and internet quizzes that tell us our one true love.
All that’s connected to another “easy response” that we can get stuck in: selfishness. The idea that my life is only for myself. I think most of us want to believe what Father Leahy reminds us: that each of us is a gift to someone else. When we give that up, it’s because we’ve become convinced that there’s nothing except self interest. It’s because we’re discouraged enough to say that people are beyond being helped. It’s because we’re scared enough to say that our own little heart couldn’t help. When we give that up, everything is lessened. We stop offering what we have to the world, we’re inconsiderate, and we hurt inside. We hurt because we want, want desperately, to have lives that reach out beyond ourselves–and because we’ve decided that we don’t. We’ve decided that we can’t.
So, here, I’m writing it down. I’m listening to Father Leahy. I’m telling you. Go ahead and live for yourself, eat a mango, drink in that taste of the world; and while you live for yourself, live for us all. Work for us all. Be part of the sea that is us all: sometimes a quiet drop, sometimes a wave.
You are a gift to somebody else.
A Practice: “I am alive for…”
I want to share a practice that, an hour ago, this writing gave me. Driving into work, for a moment, I didn’t see why it was worth writing, or thinking, or teaching. How could these stories and discussions matter? And then I thought about Father Leahy. And then I thought about my family, my friends, and my students. And then I thought about you. If you’re interested in sharing my practice, I invite you to take a few minutes, and say out loud who you are alive for today. Say their full name, all of their full names, and in the end, say “I am alive.” Who, today, do you live for?
I started this, and found that I wanted to say name after name after name. I am alive for so many. I am alive for you. I am alive. And I know why.