Desperate questions

Am I a good person? Deep down, do I even really want to be a good person, or do I only want to seem like a good person so that people (including myself) will approve of me? Is there a difference? How do I ever actually know whether I’m bullshitting myself, morally speaking?

. . .

What exactly does “faith” mean? As in “religious faith,” “faith in God,” etc. Isn’t it basically crazy to believe in something that there’s no proof of? Is there really any difference between what we call faith and some primitive tribe’s sacrificing virgins to volcanoes because they believe it’ll produce good weather? How can somebody have faith before he’s presented with sufficient reason to have faith? Or is somehow needing to have faith a sufficient reason for having faith? But then what kind of need are we talking about?

. . .

Is the real point of my life simply to undergo as little pain and as much pleasure as possible? My behavior sure seems to indicate that this is what I believe, at least a lot of the time. But isn’t this kind of a selfish way to live? Forget selfish — isn’t it awfully lonely?

. . .

But if I decide to decide there’s a different, less selfish, less lonely point to my life, won’t the reason for this decision be my desire to be less lonely, meaning to suffer less overall pain? Can the decision to be less selfish ever be anything other than a selfish decision?

. . .

Is it possible really to love other people? If I’m lonely and in pain, everyone outside me is potential relief — I need them. But can you really love what you need so badly? Isn’t a big part of love caring more about what the other person needs? How am I supposed to subordinate my own overwhelming need to somebody else’s needs that I can’t even feel directly? And yet if I can’t do this, I’m damned to loneliness, which I definitely don’t want . . . so I’m back at trying to overcome my selfishness for self-interested reasons. Is there any way out of this bind?

. . .

What is “an American”? Do we have something important in common, as Americans, or is it just that we all happen to live inside the same boundaries and so have to obey the same laws? How exactly is America different from other countries? Is there really something unique about it? What does that uniqueness entail? We talk a lot about our special rights and freedoms, but are there also special responsibilities that come with being an American? If so, responsibilities to whom?

. . .

Does this guy Jesus Christ’s life have something to teach me even if I don’t, or can’t, believe he was divine? What am I supposed to make of the claim that someone who was God’s relative, and so could have turned the cross into a planter or something with just a word, still voluntarily let them nail him up there, and died? Even if we suppose he was divine — did he know? Did he know he could have broken the cross with just a word? Did he know in advance that death would just be temporary (because I bet I could climb up there, too, if I knew that an eternity of right-hand bliss lay on the other side of six hours of pain)? But does any of that even really matter? Can I still believe in JC or Mohammed or Whoever even if I don’t believe they were actual relatives of God? Except what would that mean: “believing in”?

. . .

— David Foster Wallace, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky

Against defensiveness

. . . I would advise you against defensiveness on principle. It precludes the best eventualities along with the worst. At the most basic level, it expresses a lack of faith. As I have said, the worst eventualities can have great value as experience. And often enough, when we think we are protecting ourselves, we are struggling against our rescuer.

— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

I’m writing this to tell you

I’d never have believed I’d see a wife of mine doting on a child of mine. It still amazes me every time I think of it. I’m writing this in part to tell you that if you ever wonder what you’ve done in your life, and everyone does wonder sooner or later, you have been God’s grace to me, a miracle, something more than a miracle. You may not remember me very well at all, and it may seem to you to be no great thing to have been the good child of an old man in a shabby little town you will no doubt leave behind. If only I had the words to tell you.

— Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

The other, higher-order paradox

The fraudulence paradox was that the more time and effort you put into trying to appear impressive or attractive to other people, the less impressive or attractive you felt inside — you were a fraud. And the more of a fraud you felt like, the harder you tried to convey an impressive or likable image of yourself so that other people wouldn’t find out what a hollow, fraudulent person you really were. Logically, you would think that the moment a supposedly intelligent nineteen-year-old became aware of this paradox, he’d stop being a fraud and just settle for being himself (whatever that was) because he’d figured out that being a fraud was a vicious infinite regress that ultimately resulted in being frightened, lonely, alienated, etc. But here was the other, higher-order paradox, which didn’t even have a form or name — I didn’t, I couldn’t.

— David Foster Wallace, “Good Old Neon”

Family suicides

Members of families in which there has been a suicide are far more likely than others to kill themselves. This is in part simply because family suicides make the unthinkable thinkable. It is also because the pain of living when someone you love has annihilated himself can be almost intolerable. A mother whose son had hanged himself said to me, “I feel as though my fingers are being caught in a slamming door and I’ve stopped permanently in midscream.” It is also because, at a presumably genetic level, suicide runs in families.

— Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon

 

The Quantity Theory of Suicide

Any single suicide is the result of psychopathology, but the relatively consistent appearance of psychopathological suicidality seems to be tied to social constructs. In each society there is a different context for the act, but it may be the case that a certain percentage of the population in every society kill themselves. The values and customs of a society determine which causes will lead to the act in which place. People who believe that they are operating on the basis of unique trauma are often, in fact, simply manifesting a tendency in their society that drives people to death.

— Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon

Alien logic

Some people with every bright promise in their life commit suicide. Suicide is not the culmination of a difficult life; it comes in from some hidden location beyond the mind and beyond consciousness. I can look back now at my own little para-suicidal period: the logic that seemed so abundantly reasonable to me at that time now seems as alien as the bacteria that gave me pneumonia a few years earlier. It is like a powerful germ that entered the body and took over. I had been hijacked by strangeness.

— Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon

Guns don’t kill people: they just make it a lot easier to do so

The United States is the only country in the world where the primary means of suicide is guns. More Americans kill themselves with guns than are murdered with them every year in the United States. The ten states with the weakest gun-control laws have a suicide rate twice that of the ten states with the strongest laws.

— Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon