Grab a corner of the curtain over the powers at work in this world, pull it back, and look inside, and you will discover two of the strongest forces on earth: pride and despair.
One generates what seems to be tremendous dedication and focus; the other robs life of all motivation and concentration. In the clutches of pride or despair much of mankind gets stuck — trapped by self-glory or pinned down by hopelessness, both alienated and isolated, unable to taste the joy.
Few see more clearly behind this curtain, and few explain what they see with more bone-chilling reality, than David Foster Wallace in his novel Infinite Jest. His complex and sprawling work exposes the human love affair with entertainment, the high-octane drive of personal glory, the prison of drug addiction, and the nightmarish isolation of depression. For a thousand pages, he exposes the world’s dark plagues of pride and despair.
LaMont Chu is an eleven-year-old athletic prodigy with “an increasingly crippling obsession with tennis fame.” He desperately wants his picture in glossy magazines. He yearns for television commentators in jackets and headsets to celebrate his every move on the court. He wants endorsements. He lusts for hype. He longs for the worship of photographers. His greatest threats in life are losses and injury.
“Why,” his friend Lyle asks, “are you driven to this fame?”
“I guess to give my life some sort of kind of meaning,” he answers honestly.
LaMont’s lusts burn for a fame that will give his life substance.
Like a good friend, Lyle tries to talk real sense into LaMont by explaining how fame decomposes the heart. “The first photograph, the first magazine, the gratified surge, the seeing themselves as others see them, the hagiography of image, perhaps. Perhaps this first time: enjoyment. After that . . . they do not feel what you burn for. . . . Something changes. After the first photograph has been in a magazine, the famous men do not enjoy their photographs in magazines so much as they fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines. They are trapped, just as you are.”
The lust for fame and the need to preserve our fame are both traps that cannot sustain meaning in our life or pleasure in our soul. Craving for self-glory is to hunger for food that does not exist, it is to feed a fire that cannot die by feeding it. It is to be suffocated by constant fears and growing isolation.
Despair accomplishes something similar but through another route. Throughout the novel, David Foster Wallace walks the reader down through the various layers of depression in a Dante-like descent.
He begins with anhedonia, a simple melancholy. At this level, “The devoted wife and mother finds the thought of her family about as moving, all of a sudden, as a theorem of Euclid.” Anhedonia is life hollowed of joys, leaving a shell of dull detachment. Such a woman can still recall memories of happiness, and she can talk about happiness, but really only as a matter of principle. She feels none of it. The melancholy anhedonic becomes “Unable to Identify,” uprooted, lost, disconnected from the world and home, floating through life in a sort of affection-dulled and anesthetized abstraction from reality.
This type of depression is especially reserved for the characters in Wallace’s book that have lived only to achieve professional goals. In mid-life, they find the joys they have expected through all their strivings have evaporated. Like a blow to the gut, they have come to see the fun in life, what drove them, was the carrot chase. Once the competition to supremacy ends, they find only a dose of numb emptiness. Anhedonia.
But this stage of melancholy is a vacation compared to “the Great White Shark of pain,” a “predator-grade depression,” an anguish and despair so dark it simply goes by the name It.
It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. . . . It is lonely on a level that cannot be conveyed. . . . If a person in physical pain has a hard time attending to anything except that pain, a clinically depressed person cannot even perceive any other person or thing as independent of the universal pain that is digesting her, cell by cell. Everything is part of the problem, and nothing is the solution. It is a hell for one.
No simple solutions cure clinical depression, and the characters in Wallace’s novel pursue just about any medical option to escape the pain (or worse). Those tormented by the relentless It, long simply to be numb again, to return to a place where they feel no pain or pleasure, anything to escape the ravishing pain and the living decomposition they now feel eating away at them. They stand at the open window of a tall building on fire, the flames roaring below, pressed for a decision: burn or jump? That is the daily decision of those living under the oppressive nightmare of It.
Made to Love
Pride and despair empty the human existence, because at the root of our identity, we know we are made to love. In the profound words of David Foster Wallace: “You are what you love.” We love, he says, because we are “absolutely dying to give ourselves away to something.”
We were made to give ourselves to transcendence. As another character suggests: “Someone taught that temples are for fanatics only and took away the temples and promised there was no need for temples. And now there is no shelter. And no map for finding the shelter of a temple. And you all stumble about in the dark, this confusion of permissions. This without-end pursuit of a happiness of which someone let you forget the old things which made happiness possible.”
Our only hope is to stumble our way to the temple, but we have no map. We’re stuck. Our lives are meant to be lives of worship, but we grope in the dark. David Foster Wallace explained this point in a commencement address:
There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. . . . 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 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 grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re 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.
On the contrary, there is sin here — sin so strong and so deep we have no hope of escape in ourselves.
Unable to find our way to the temple, we worship appearance, sex, money, and intellect. Our misdirected worship is another manifestation of our pride and despair, and in this evil we are stuck. Our lives may not be as boldly self-centered as the tennis prodigy, and we may never taste the nightmare pain of It, but all of us are familiar with pride and melancholy. We know what it’s like to be stuck in the vanity of self-glorification or to be deadened by despair, unable to find our way to shelter, to the altar of joy (Psalm 43:4).
This is what it means to be lost in the pain and confusion of a fallen world, in a novel with echoes of tragic autobiographical familiarity of a famous author, who desperately needed to find his way to the Temple, but apparently never did (John 2:19).
He killed himself by hanging at age 46.
Novocain for the Soul
The consequences of a fallen world, and the consequences of our sin, tag-team to shoot Novocain deep into the soul. Depravity and sin numb us to all true spiritual sensation. The soul is dead.
Hardly are we aware of the thickness of the darkness and the degree of our desperation. In a broken world of conflicting emotions, the chaos of self-motivation, and the depressing powers over our lives, we cannot escape. We cannot escape ourselves. We find ourselves bound to our limits, confined by the self. The deck is stacked against us.
To find any hope, God’s sovereign grace must reach into the darkness of a world of despair. God’s sovereign grace must find exiled sinners, who pursue self-glory, who live in a “confusion of permissions,” who obscure evil for good. Every one of us must be freed from ourselves.
Drawn by the Cord of Sovereign Grace
The point is that we desperately need to find our identity in another — but we keep falling back on ourselves. Generations of people before us, startled by the darkness they see in the world and by the pride and despair they have found in their own souls, have searched every holy page of Scripture to put words to this mystery. How will God reach into history, despite all the forces at play, to redeem and call a family of his own. How does he do it? How will he break into this mess to draw us?
The Puritans in the eighteenth century, and their heirs, turned to the romantically charged language of Song of Solomon and to the passionately redemptive language of Hosea to hear God speak hope:
- “I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:14).
- “I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love” (Hosea 11:4).
- “Draw me after you; let us run” (Song of Solomon 1:4).
These passages resonate. We know God must lure us to himself. But to pull this off, he must overcome and out-allure the powers of pride and despair at work within all of us. As redemptive history progresses, Jesus explains how God will pull off this feat:
- “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23).
- “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44).
- “No one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:65).
- “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all” (John 10:27–29).
- “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people [Jew and Gentile alike] to myself” (John 12:32).
God will draw his children to himself in order to love and delight in them:
- “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people,’ and her who was not beloved I will call ‘beloved’” (Romans 9:25).
- “. . . as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved . . .” (Colossians 3:12).
- “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power . . .” (1 Thessalonians 1:4–5).
- “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2:13).
The Father elects, searches out, and draws. The Son attracts and secures. In his death and resurrection, Christ acts on behalf of the elect, not only to secure their redemption (definite atonement), but to draw them into his delight. God’s plan of redemption is unintelligible without understanding these points.
Which means even our best manmade religions offer us little hope to get us safely inside the right temple. Apart from grace our religious devotion alone only works to make proud people more arrogant, or miserable people more dejected. Human religion can only feed the sinner’s pride or fuel the sinner’s despair.
“Only Christianity destroys both pride and despair,” says Timothy Keller. “Christianity first shows you a law that has to be totally fulfilled, destroying your pride. Then Christianity shows you a Savior who has totally fulfilled it, getting rid of your despair.”
The lesson we take from the great novels and apply to our lives is this: In light of the pain, the pride, and the despair of this fallen world, helpless sinners desperately depend on God’s wooing, alluring, tender, and unstoppably sovereign grace.
Sources: David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (Little, Brown & Co.; 1996), 107, 319–320, 388–389, 692–698. David Foster Wallace, commencement address at Kenyon College (2005). David Lipsky, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace (Broadway: 2010), 81, as quoted in James K. A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom (Baker: 2013), 24. Tim Keller, sermon, “Jesus, Our Priest” (November 12, 1995).