Just some late night musings
The broader subject at hand here is something that is near and dear to me, and it strikes me that Wallace’s message is, in a way, confused and at odds with itself. And while it’s well intentioned and very powerful on the surface, it is wrong in some ways.
“But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, 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 a husband who is 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 horrific, infuriating, 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, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn 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 lit the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
The problem I have with his message is that by his definition, when you choose to turn off the default setting and look at the world in a different way, you are doing it for you – not for others – not for the lady who has been up for three nights with her dying husband – not for the kind soul that helped your wife at the DMV. You are doing it to benefit yourself – to experience “the mystical oneness” and “Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” If you look at it this way, it’s still all about you. You have NOT turned off the default setting, and you are still the “absolute centre of the universe.”
“ Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe… We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it’s so socially repulsive.
He’s absolutely right, but what he suggests at this point doesn’t even begin to address turning off the default setting. It simply rotates the universe around us a little where we see it from a different direction but still from the center. And he’s right that even a tiny change in the view such as what he suggests is repulsive to most of us. Think about that for a minute... Not only do we gravitate to the view from the center of the universe, we’re even selfish about which view we take from the center.
“Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that is Capital T true is that you get to decide how you are going to try see it… You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t… (a lot is cut out in the edited version here) that is real freedom… The alternative is unconsciousness. The default setting.”
Tip-toeing around the ban on religion here, I would suggest that simply changing your view while remaining in the center of the universe is not freedom, and neither is deciding what has meaning and what doesn't. In both, you are still controlled by selfish motives and you are still in the default setting. This is what is Capital T true if you think this way.
I was troubled when he suggested this is a way to experience love, because there is nothing selfish in Capital L Love. Towards the end (in the full version), however, he takes a big step in the right direction. Here he is Capital T Truly talking about changing out of the default setting and freeing yourself to Capital L Love your neighbor. This is life changing freedom.
“And the so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings,… Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the centre of all creation... But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom.”