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"The really important kind of freedom involves attention..."
Alex Steffen, 20 Mar 09

David Foster Wallace left behind this beautiful passage from a commencement speech:

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 JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some intangible 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, clichés, 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.

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 there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the 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.

It's really easy to make an ass of yourself thinking aloud about subjects this big in response to a writer as brilliant as DFW, but... I'm more and more of the opinion that actual practice of the good life -- a deepened sense of meaning, more caring and closer relationships, more sensual and exciting experiences, more satisfying work, more creative expression and more plain old fun -- is something that has eroded, noticeably, from our lives as they've become more debt-leveraged, materially cluttered and unsustainable.

As much as I admire voluntary simplicity, I don't think that simplicity for its own sake is the answer, at least not in the sense of relinquishment or retreat from the complexity of 21st century life. But I increasingly think that an increase in clarity is an absolute precondition to the world changing the way I want, and, perhaps more even more importantly, to living like that world was already here.

And I suspect the clarity I hope towards and the kind of freedom David Foster Wallace describes here are much the same thing.

(Hat tip to Mark Finnern.)

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