In Quack This Way, Bryan Garner asks what David Foster Wallace thinks about “officialese,” the strange, formal language that airport officials use when they say “Keep your personal belongings in visual contact at all times,” instead of something like “Please keep an eye on your stuff.” DFW says that, as a language guy, that kind of phrasing used to make him mad. These days he has a different first response:
“There are reasons behind this stuff. Very complicated reasons. I’m not sure they’re good reasons or not, but there are reasons.”
I copied out this quote, and then I lay on my bed (and my floor, and the deck out back) for three hours, writing and rewriting and scrapping pages of text in response to David Foster Wallace. I couldn’t say it quite right. I couldn’t even decide what the “it” was I was trying to say. Then I went for a walk. There was a reason I lay on my bed for hours, struggling with my keyboard–DFW’s simple statement was a treasure chest, and I wanted something from inside. There’s a reason I didn’t get where I was going–I was frustrated, and lazy, fumbling my way through muddied concepts. There’s a reason why going outside made things clearer: I’ve read human brains perk up when we see nature moving, and whether that’s true or not, I like the taste of the trees, the touch of the wind, the dance of the ground. There’s a reason I’m okay with spilling out pages of splintered junk as I try to follow an idea: sometimes I’m too quick to quit, and holding myself to the task is important.
When I look at something and it bothers me, or it’s incomprehensible, or it just seems stupid, there’s probably a reason behind it. There’s probably a reason why someone built the thing that way, or goes about doing the thing that way. (In the airport case, DFW suggests the loudspeaker wants to sound like the voice of abstract authority, so that we quietly go along with what it says while feeling both controlled and protected). The reasons are complicated. They might not be very good. All the same, they’re there. If I don’t understand them, or at least consider them, I might have a hard time changing what’s in front of me. I might be surprised when people resist the changes I suggest. I might create solutions that don’t take into account the entire situation.
The next time I’m doing something that seems stupid, or lazy–the next time I see someone else doing something that just drives me crazy–I’m probably going to say “that’s dumb!” It’s my habit, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to escape from it immediately. But a second later I’m going to remember DFW and say, “Wait a minute. What are the reasons behind this stuff?”