Obligation

If your sole complaint is suicidality, or depression, then to kill yourself before you have tried every expedient is tragic. But when you get to the psychic breaking point and know, and have the agreement of others, that your life is just too awful — suicide becomes a right. Then (and it is such a fragile, difficult moment), it becomes an obligation for those who are living to accept the will of those who do not and will not wish to live.

— Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon

The brilliance of self-recognition

Contrary to popular belief, suicide is not the last resort of the depressive mind. It is not the last moment of mental decay. The chances of suicide are actually higher among people recently returned from a hospital stay than they are among people at a hospital, and not simply because the restraints of the hospital setting have been lifted. Suicide is the mind’s rebellion against itself, a double disillusionment of a complexity that the perfectly depressed mind cannot compass. It is a willful act to liberate oneself of oneself. The meekness of depression could hardly imagine suicide; it takes the brilliance of self-recognition to destroy the object of that recognition. However misguided the impulse, it is at least an impulse. If there is no other comfort in a suicide not avoided, at least there is this persistent thought, that it was an act of misplaced courage and unfortunate strength rather than an act of utter weakness or of cowardice.

— Andrew Solomon, The Noonday Demon

A Little Fable

“Alas,” said the mouse, “the world is growing smaller every day. At the beginning it was so big that I was afraid, I kept running and running, and I was glad when at last I say walls far away to the right and left, but these long walls have narrowed so quickly that I am in the last chamber already, and there in the corner stands the trap that I must run into.” “You need only change your direction,” said the cat, and ate it up.

— Franz Kafka
Quoted By David Foster Wallace in
“Some Remarks On Kafka’s Funniness From Which Probably Not Enough Has Been Removed”

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”