“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.
6 thoughts on “67: “A Gift To Somebody Else” (Leahy & Wallace)”
Sitting here asking myself who I live for and I can’t name many people outside of my close family and friend circle that I truly live for. I wonder if that a selfish trait, or something that is natural of human beings. Maybe It is my upbringing. This is something I will have to ponder on for a while. I think it comes down to having a true love for one another and seeing the potential in them. If this is true, then maybe we as human beings are even more divided than we think.
I think you’re right–it does come from “having a true love for one another.” At the beginning that might be upbringing, but then, I think, it’s personal choice. I choose to live for many, many people–including you, Mason. What do you choose?
Azlan, this post touched me today. As a college student I am now alone with the power to decide what will become of my life; I’m choosing the bridge to my future. Daily, I walk among individuals who have their lives figured out, some to the smallest of details; these people have decided their paths across the river, some already on the other side. I think of them and sit here amazed, yet I still wonder where it is my own bridge leads. The indecisiveness of my own decision has been all but easy, and has had detrimental effects my well-being. Do I want to be a “quiet drop” and cross the tranquil stream, or do I want to be a “wave” and cross the rapids? Does the bridge I want to cross even exist, and if not, do I have the strength or sanity required to construct it? If that bridge isn’t built sturdy enough…what is there to stop me from falling? …jumping? I want to see the other side, but what if that distant dream has been warped into a nightmare…is it worth the struggle?
Sometimes I forget the significance of my own life, I believe we all do at times. You are right in saying that we become selfish when we forget that. Stagnate and hollow, some of us tend to escape that void of insignificance with fictitious ideas of happiness just as Turnbull did. It is truly hard to believe that I can mean something to the world when I am but one among billions. But you are right, I am alive. I make up the sea, even if I am just a single drop. While I may just be another nobody in the crowd, I am somebody to those who formulate the world, who help create the ocean that is around me. How could I be any luckier, I’m surrounded by extensive amounts of friends and family that love and appreciate my existence. No matter which bridge I take, I know they will be waiting on the other side. I’m alive for them.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts Azlan, they made me realize something I had forgotten for a long time.
Beautifully thought and beautifully said, Callie. Thank you. And while you might have forgotten, I think that there is something in you that can always remembers. I am inspired by your kindness and your confusion. I am inspired by your honesty. Whatever “bridge” you walk or make, you already help me. You help me right now. Thank you.
Thank you, Azlan. I am alive for…you, and many others. Wow, this is great.