Prompted by a colleague’s laudatory mention of him, I recently began reading some work by David Foster Wallace, a highly regarded novelist, essayist and teacher
who committed suicide at 46 late last summer. The brilliance of his writing, suffused with the most copious and insightful observation of a dazzling variety of subjects,
never dimmed by his use of many words whose definitions I do not know, reveals him to have been blessed with a particular revelatory genius, one whose limits I am still
His departure made me acutely aware of how much the world is suffering from a lack of healthy, inspiring role models. Wallace was reported to have been a life-long victim of clinical depression [Depression is defined in Metapsychiatry as stubborn attachment to the idea that what is wanted is forever unattainable. It can be healed by redirecting interest and attention toward the good that already exists in one's life], for which he received extensive psychochemical and electro-convulsive treatment. What a tragedy that, whatever his private demons, there was no one in his life who could more than temporarily rouse him from such miasmal despair. [According to the only tale, a fictional one entitled "The Depressed Person," that I found indirectly referring to his condition, he chose to make the eponymous individual female, explicitly stating at the outset of the story that the origin of the subject's depression was unknown. The chronic, perhaps indicative, habit described in the narrative, was excessive concern about what other people thought about her, including her therapist and her support group.]
Of course, our parents are our principal role models in life, and none are so perfect in understanding that we do not enter adulthood without extensive crazy misconceptions about life, self and others. The manifestation of enlightened awareness, unencumbered by self-confirmatory charisma, is so rare that few of us ever encounter or are awakened and uplifted by it. Instead, the world is flooded with hero-worship, which all too often elicits envy, jealousy and the disturbing torrents of comparison thinking.
To meet and consider the non-personal, non-conditional, benevolent way of the spiritually evolved is a gift to be ardently appreciated. The existence and presence of such individuals or even fleeting moments of equanimity indicate the feasibility of attaining an issue-oriented perspective on life, where one is not interested in confirming his or her own being in response to the universal existential dread of non-being, but is rather focused on discerning and enjoying the good available to perception.
Existentialism and phenomenology have revealed to us that much of the activity of our lives is involved with our fear of death, of our annihilation, of the destruction of what we consider our being, of being ignored by others and thereby made into nothing. They have shown us that we individually have secretly held sets of values. Those values constitute and govern our way of being, what the psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger called our “mode of being in the world.” Further, this cherished perspective tends to determine our perceptions, thoughts and experiences in life. And so, the underlying, fundamental trepidation that our existence is imperiled induces us to assert ourselves, to have some feeling of importance or worth. The urge to have others acknowledge and recognize us in the way we would like can dominate our lives. And because self-centered thinking is so prevalent and so accepted, only the wise are aware of its constricting effect.
The spiritual teacher with whom I studied was one who was able to rise above the inclination toward what he called “self-confirmatory ideation.” At least in my presence, he exhibited no interest whatsoever in ever speaking about himself, even to the extent of claiming that “Dr. Hora isn’t even here,” when confronted with an inquiry to speak about himself. He once wrote an article entitled “On Meeting a Zen Master Socially,” which I suppose presented a description of and the rationale for such a transcendent orientation. He used the phrase “being a beneficial presence in the world” to explain the values, qualities of consciousness, and ultimate purpose of human existence.
Many were his students who would say, “Dr. Hora saved my life.” We were dazzled by the insight that he communicated in discerning the invalid values to which we clung and were embarrassed but chastened by their revelation. The individual example, calm authority, assurance and wisdom that he manifested inspired us to contemplate the ideas that he expressed about the spiritual nature of reality; over many years such scrutiny enabled us to attain some measure of dominion over our own self-confirmatory habits.
Earlier this year I attended the funeral of an 80-year old man, a fellow congregant at my temple, who was trained as an aeronautical engineer, but spent most of his working career as a businessman and manufacturer. He was a gentleman, born in Vienna, but raised and educated in England, who consistently exhibited the humble, generous, kindly, thoughtful, good-humored, intellectually curious character and egalitarian spirit of a “beneficial presence,” the term my teacher used to describe the qualities of a spiritually enlightened being. A singular individual indeed, as all the eulogies attested.
The comforting tendency is to wish that there were more genuine spiritual guides or examples able to function as role models for us. But the lesson implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) taught by such seers is that each of us needs to understand the values that free the soul from its ruminative rut of self-confirmation. For although the confluence of abundant spiritual understanding may be rare in individuals, we are all exposed to joy, peace, gratitude, love, and harmony upon occasion, which help us to elevate our thoughts. In that sense, if we are receptive to such transformative values, we may become models of spiritual excellence both for ourselves and for others. What the world needs now.
Rest in Peace, David Foster Wallace.