I think it was last Wednesday when we went in depth discussing AA, and what Wallace might be saying about our “pursuit of happiness.” The whole idea of constant worship, our constant submission to some power, really stuck with me. This is the idea that we are constantly worshipping something- be it alcohol, rehab, drugs, God, sex, math, whatever. The idea with AA was just to transition into worshipping something else, although I’m not exactly sure what one is worshipping- recovery? Truth? Some kind of raw admittance that one is messed up? Or perhaps what AA is looking for is just the acknowledgement that one is always worshipping. Perhaps by knowing that we are always worshipping we can be more aware of just what and how we are worshipping.
I was curious as to what DFW had said more on this topic directly, and although I think this link was already posted, I wanted to look at a piece from his Kenyon graduation address:
“Because here’s something else that’s true. In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things — if they are where you tap real meaning in life — then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. On one level, we all know this stuff already — it’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichÃ©s, bromides, epigrams, parables: the skeleton of every great story. The trick is keeping the truth up-front in daily consciousness. Worship power — you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart — you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful; it is that they are unconscious. They are default-settings. They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. And the world will not discourage you from operating on your default-settings, because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”
The first part might reveal something about DFW’s view on religion. He sees religion as the only form of worship that might keep us from being “eaten alive.” But beyond this, he sees another option- one that might not even include a higher power. If somehow we can be constantly conscious of our worship, choosing to worship rather than “gradually slipping into it.” It is this conscious choice that can make life deliberate, because we are always aware of our aim.
This deliberateness is what can make me see religion as beautiful. A belief in a higher power requires us to consciously look outside of ourselves and our attempts at ruling over our lives to look to something greater. But here DFW suggests that the real reason to choose a higher power is simply that there may be nothing else that can allow us to live.
DFW begins suggesting this alternate lifestyle, and it is difficult to define. It doesn’t sound like it necessarily involves religion, but just an awareness and effort. I’m unsure, however, as to how this sheer effort can completely get rid of “the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.” Where does that gnawing go once we start trying harder? It seems that our efforts to be aware and to consciously love others can come to the very same empty gnawing as we feel in addiction.
Where does AA stand in all this? I think it definitely leans towards a sort of awareness and change in our style of worship. Just whether it can get rid of the gnawing completely (rather than just numbing the ache) I am not sure.