Some infinite thing

Some infinite thing May 14, 2013

“None of this stuff is really about morality or religion or dogma or big fancy questions about life after death. …”

“The alternate is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant, gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”


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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Fusina


  • Nicely said.

  • ReverendRef

    A parishioner sent this to me yesterday. I hear stuff like this and think, “Damn . . . I wish I could preach like that.”

  • To give everyone a chance and think of something other than one’s self… I’ve tried to make that choice, though days like this make it hard.

    (Currently in one of those periods where whether there’s sun or a birthday or sounds or no sounds or my hair is spiders or everything is spiders… :| )

  • Guest

    This fills me full of so much rage. There are little annoying things that fill most of our lives. But, there are so many ways that the world could be less annoying, and it does seem like people go out of their way to not fix it.

    I don’t want a stupid faded sign or a meaningless phrase that some cashier is forced to say on threat of firing. I want all the checkouts open so I can get out of there. This is not an unsolvable problem.

    I don’t want the person who is terrified of driving to be forced with the option of getting an expensive, massively traffic clogging, environmentally terrible (and not actually safer) SUV or be stuck homebound. I want good public transportation.

    What does this choice actually mean? Did any of us choose to have grocery stores laid out so that it intentionally takes more time out of our lives to shop? Did the woman choose to have to argue about 40 cents (coupon lady) because otherwise she can’t afford that item? Did all of these people choose to have routine lives?

    Doing our best to think the best of everyone is laudable. I think it cuts down on my road rage quite a lot. But how can we really call it a choice? I’m more likely to not care about the person who cuts me off when I’m not in a hurry. When I am in a hurry, it is more likely to bother me. That’s more or less biochemistry, not a choice. And I’m sick of the word “choice” like it is a meaningful word when most of the time, our “choices” are made so far outside of our control it may have been set up by an alien species doing an experiment,

  • shadsieblue

    In one of my short stories, I had a line about how “people are more or less fictional to each other.” – And I think so… it takes a bit of imagination to really think of life outside oneself. Sometimes, a little narrative in your head can keep you from wanting to throttle someone.

    If you ever see me acting like a dead-eyed cow in the supermarket, or freaking out over something, know that I am not one of those people with a “usual life” or a usual brain. There are reasons for some of the ways I seem to scare people – and my subsequent isolation to put most of my human interaction in writing/online.

    (Am “Worthless Beast” by the way… Disqus got all dumb on me and won’t let me post unless I’m using my Google login). Please don’t hurt me.

  • Launcifer

    You too, huh? Well, all I got’s commiserations and internet goodwill, but you’re more than welcome to both ;).

  • Blech.

    I do not have any sense of having lost anything infinite. I have lost things in my life, and none of them were infinity. And you can only look down on the “rat race” when you don’t depend on the cheese to survive.

    Boring, routine, and petty frustration? “An average adult day”?! Yeah, I can’t even go through a revolving door without help. And you think high schoolers and college graduates haven’t had plenty of all of those things already? You think they haven’t worked for money already? Or had hellish things happen to them? Even before my disability, this bullshit would have pissed me the hell off. Hey, just because your natural state is “asshole”, that doesn’t mean it is for everyone. The universalist tone of this sermon is just — argh. I guess it’s Not For Me, and not just because I’m an atheist.

  • SisterCoyote

    No matter how many little annoying bothersome things in the world are fixed, there will always be situations where we are faced with a crowd of humanity which we did not choose to deal with, but nonetheless are forced to share space with in order to move through the day. It is this situation, which is universal unless you decide to go into some kind of solitary hermitage, in which we do have the choice to shut off our “default” setting of grumbling at all the unrelatable obstacles between us and our goal, and see them as fellow human beings with wants, needs, loves, desires, hurts, and thoughts who are trying to get to their goal as well, and probably just as frustrated.

    It doesn’t mean doing our best to think the best of everyone, it means making an effort to simply remember that everyone is people. And yeah, that is a choice, and yeah, it colors our actions and our reactions and our emotions.

  • Baby_Raptor

    *sympathy hugs* Some weeks you just want to stay in bed with a pillow over your head til they’re over. I know that feeling all too well. Give yourself some extra sanity time. You deserve it.

  • Your comment contains the assumption that the “default” setting is to grumble at other people between us and our goal. It’s not. If it is for someone, then yes, they need to work on that, but this is not some kind of human universal like, I dunno, having to pee.

  • Lee B.

    Aw, sorry to hear that. I hope you find a piece of corn on the floor somewhere.

  • Indeed. He certainly thinks young people have it made today, doesn’t he? Because surely no college student has ever had to deal with routine or long, slow lines, or just wanting the chance to relax for an hour.

    Also, it’s hard for me to think of the last time I was bored. Hell, if nothing else, these two folks (with jobs that pay well enough that they both have cars) could at least plug in an iPad and listen to a podcast if the line is so long. And they don’t have a friend or family member to call?

    And yes, as Guest pointed out, it is quite rational to become at least a bit frustrated when things that could easily be fixed (not enough cashiers, badly-timed traffic lights, not enough food in your own freezer) are not.

    Geez, dude, just get some Chinese takeout if you’re that tired!

  • Worthless Beast

    So, you *never* grumble at people in your mind or become annoyed when people are in front of you, or undisciplined children are screaming at the top of your lungs around you or someone cuts you off in traffic?
    Are you some kind of calmness superbeing? Because, really, I think I could learn from you if you never get annoyed at the rest of humanity.
    I actually agreed with the video that it’s my “default setting.” If I’m honest with myself, I know it is. I’m so “sensory overload” around other people and crowds I sometimes have outright panic attacks.
    Maybe I’m just a bad person?
    (I do have a disorder… but I don’t know it’s an excuse).

  • SisterCoyote

    You’re right. I suppose a better way of putting it would be to point out that it is just much, much easier to think of people as obstacles or irritants (not necessarily to grumble, even), and therefore thinking of them in another context is indeed a conscious choice. With a lot of practice, it probably becomes a mental habit, but I do think that the path of least resistance is to think of people as obstacles that inconvenience us, and this is therefore what people default to.

  • I wish I could, but it’s a money thing. It needs an immediate, nonexistent solution.

  • Cloorn, carry the F…

    I’ve seriously had those moments. The only problem is that after having episodes like this repeatedly over a number of years, I think what sets me off now is liable to be a sign of increasing mental instability.

  • P J Evans

    Or learn to use the self-check machines. There’s usually no line there, and it isn’t hard if you don’t have a lot.

    (I was in line once, between a woman buying stuff on WIC coupons, and two guys who were unhappy about waiting – the checker has to make sure everything being bought is a match for what’s on the coupons, and it’s slow. I had no sympathy for the complaining guys, just for the woman with the couplons and the checker.)

  • Worthless Beast

    Self-checkouts are nice, but they have their problems on occasion, too. Usually, it’s with produce. The thing doesn’t want to weigh right or you can’t find your specific type of potato or whatever on the list. One time, my guy and I suffered a system glitch that shut down the self-checkouts in the middle of using them.
    I’ve been a cashier at retail (non-food) stores. They don’t pay enough and expect you to put up with Hell. With a smile. They should be thought of as saints simply for not reaching over the counters and throttling people.

  • Mental hugs for sympathizing with her. While I was on my vacation, my parents took more than a few opportunities to casually snipe at the mental strawmen in their heads who use food stamps so they don’t have to work and sit at home all day with their feet up on the table, watching pirated satellite (which they know the lazy moocher gets, because they’ve pirated satellite before, which was totally justified when they did it because they didn’t get caught).

    I had already wanted to show them the movie Ink, but the urge was unbearable after a few rounds of that. Growing up in poverty is a major factor in one of the character’s development. There’s a scene where he, as a child, has to weather the derisive stares of people as his mother pays for groceries with food stamps. It’s an intensely emotional scene, as is… most of the movie, actually.

  • Guest

    But I’m not talking about the irritating things in life we have to put up with. Rain will fall, sun will bake, road construction will cause traffic. There are no solutions to the inevitable, and you can pack an umbrella, put on the sunscreen, and use your traffic time to learn Japanese. But there is no reason there should be 2 checkout lines open when there are 10 checkouts to choose from, other than there is some person (or series of people) who do not care about me at all. It isn’t the other customers that cause me to rage. It is the complete lack of indifference by a group of people who are solely interested in my money and then have the indecent hypocrisy to demand I “have a nice day”.

    In the grand scheme of things, this is not the most important issue o anyone’s life*. Except, we don’t live in the grand scheme of things. We live in a our day to day life, with it’s day to day petty problems that kill our happiness with a thousand cuts. Don’t tell me to have a nice day, or to have a better attitude. Show me that you actually care if I have a nice day or not. Don’t tell me I have a “choice” on how to feel when I don’t remember having the option of “Hmm, I’ll take hedonically privileged on every measurement for 200, Alex”.

    I’d say the better lessons from these day to day scenarios are “When you get irritated by all of the things in life you have to put up with, make sure you aim your bile at the people who caused them and have the ability to change it, not the people stuck with you in it”.

    * Particularly my own. I schedule my weekly grocery shopping to take place at 9 am or PM on Sunday, when no one is there.

  • I admit to a bias when it comes to anything by David Foster Wallace, but I like this in spite of my general disdain for “just choose a new way to think” kind of advice. If this had been some random motivational speaker giving a commencement address, I would have likely hated it, or assumed that the speaker was soaked in privilege and clueless about the very real difficulties so many people face that can’t be fixed by simply choosing to look at the world differently.

    But knowing a bit of his life story, of the intense despair he lived with for so much of his life, I can maybe understand where he’s coming from, and I can see that his words are not trite platitudes, but quite possibly actual strategies he used for his very survival, ways of coping that literally helped him keep living as long as he did. (And having that awareness, or at least being able to imagine another context for these words other than my own annoyance, was precisely the point he was trying to make.)

  • AnonaMiss

    Is anyone else not able to identify with this at all?

    My personal concept-of-how-other-people-see-me (as opposed to my self-concept) is one of annoyance and disgust – a blight they’d rather not see or interact with. My instinct on finding myself in a crowded place like a supermarket during the rush is to make myself scarce and hard-to-notice so as not to annoy everyone else with my existence. I don’t avoid these situations because I’m frustrated and everyone else is in my way – I avoid these situations because I’m a frustration and an obstacle and don’t want to get in their ways.

    Which is kind of fucked up, I guess.

  • I know what that feels like. I’m sorry that this is the self-image you see reflected in others. It’s almost like becoming a self-inflicted sin-eater, absorbing the hundred and eight slings and arrows of the day and torturing one’s self with them.

    For whatever it’s worth, I have absolutely no antagonism toward you. I value your presence. I want to know you inasmuch as you would like to be known. I have enjoyed reading your contributions to the best of my ability to recall them and yours and Lori’s interactions with a certain troll are the only reason I haven’t unsubscribed that thread long ago.

  • Leum

    I’ve decided that I personally (as a person with free time) cannot justify using the self check-out as doing so contributes to statistics that could result in a cashier losing their job or someone applying for a job as a cashier not being hired. Which was a hella annoying decision to make, and that I wouldn’t make for someone else, but that I do personally feel required to make.

  • Leum

    I’m in the process of formally converting to Buddhism, and a lot of this speech really speaks to some of the spiritual elements in Buddhism wrt compassion and interdependence and non-separation. And, because of that, I think it was a completely inappropriate speech to give. If I were at temple and our resident priest said this, I would totally agree with her, but at a graduation?

    This is a lecture about a spiritual practice that is both difficult and can be actively toxic if not pursued carefully (e.g. the poster who talked about how this attitude can prevent you from seeing certain irritants as solvable problems at which anger can appropriately be directed at certain persons rather than as unsolvable facts of life). It is a lecture given as though the graduates hearing it don’t already know what it’s like to work a day-in day-out job, as though once they graduate there will fucking be white-collar nine-to-five jobs waiting for them.

    No, these graduates are part of my generation, a generation that is constantly told it’s had everything handed to it on a silver platter when in fact we have worse prospects economically, spiritually, and politically than our parents. When the only social movements not actively trying to prevent conservatives from undoing the changes our political ancestors worked for is the LGBT movement (which is nothing to sneer at, the work being done in LGBT rights is important and necessary, but it doesn’t make up for the backlash against women, POC, the poor, the disabled, and other groups).

    Nothing he’s saying about the suckitude of life is new to my generation, and to present it as though it were comes off patronizing. This is not a speech that commiserates about life and looks to a new solution, but one that presents the suckiness as though it is new, something we haven’t thought of every single time when we wondered whether earning our degrees would be worth it.

    So while I’m fully on board with the message, I’m not on board with the place or the manner of the delivery.

  • Krazyface

    I don’t care for this video.

    Don’t get me wrong, it’s an amazing speech and I think the world of DFW. But one thing that comes up again and again in his stuff is the idea that instant gratification is innately less than the other kind, that it saps your ability to wrap your head around hard ideas and that sort of thing. And now someone’s turned that 20 minutes of a funny-looking guy talking into a neat, 9-minute presentation, with some pictures to make sure you don’t get bored. The fact that all the pictures are just literally the nouns he’s using doesn’t help either. I can’t help but feel that they totally missed the point.

  • AnonaMiss

    Thanks Sam, that means a lot to me. Though I should note that this feeling about myself is limited to real life interactions. I’m a lot less of a bother on the internet.

  • Once my 4 year old daughter and I were standing in a long line in Target. Essie was never the most patient of children…nor the most pleasant. She had quite a vocabulary and she never used her powers for good. (For instance, if I refused to get her something she wanted…like a coke…she would mutter (loudly, not under her breath…this starting when she was two..”This is ridiculous. This is just ridiculous. It’s obvious that I need it!”

    So back to the Target line. Essie was getting fidgety. I don’t remember exactly what she was saying but it wasn’t pleasant; I believe that she was trying to get me to go back and get some of the things she had been begging for. I was annoyed and ready to go home. The line seemed interminable and I wasn’t 100% sure what Essie would end up saying, and I probably wasn’t being terribly pleasant to her. We were probably quite an annoying pair to the people around us. But the woman in front of us, instead of being annoyed, took pity on us and turned around and started to talk to us. (Essie loved to talk, even if you never knew what she was going to say.)

    She asked Essie where she went to school. Essie, quite the story teller, boldly said, “College.” When the woman asked her what she took she said, “Paper and pencils.” We started to laugh. The people around us started to laugh and never missing a beat, the woman began to banter with Essie about college and how wonderful it was that someone so young was going to college. And…that is now one of my favorite memories of being out with my daughter. She turned a routine, annoying outing into a special memory. I don’t know how often this sort of thing works, but I try it out myself from time to time. It does kind of transform the person next to you into an actual person; maybe even a nice person. I guess it doesn’t help the lines or the fact that maybe someone needs to hire more cashiers but that sort of thing can be the difference between lecturing your child about behavior on the way home and laughing and enjoying her.

  • JustoneK

    It is a choice is what I think she’s pointing to. And taking out frustrations on people that do literally have nothing to do with it does not help anything in the larger scheme.
    Don’t mean it’s easy.

    Don’t make you a bad person for not finding it easy, either. It’s just a skillset that is helpful (I find) to cultivate, if you can, if you are inclined.

    There is also the distinct possibility that this is just how I’ve learned to cope with kyriarchy by caving to it. It’s hard for me to say. :)

  • JustoneK

    I can find you some digital corn! The internet’s good for that! Will that help?

  • Worthless Beast

    I do think it is a fine idea to want a store to hire more cashiers for speedier service. The customers win and desperate people who need piddly jobs will have them – but much like a dream for an actual, livable wage for those cashiers, it’s a fairy tale. People at the top like profit, and will cut corners wherever they can.
    As for the SUVs, no, there is not good public transportation. If you’ve ever lived in a rural area, you know it will never come to you anyway. (I found out not too long ago that the suburb where I am currently living used to have a trolley into some of the other areas, like way back in the 60s. I was all WHY DON’T WE STILL HAVE THAT? )
    We can press for change all we want, but face it, it’s going to come as slow as molasses wherever it comes at all. Most of the “Have a nice day” stuff is going to be plattitudes. (I did sincerely mean it during times I worked retail jobs if I’d gotten up on the bright side of the bipolar bed that morning and was inclined to think of people as people, other times it was a grit my teeth and wanting to tell people things like “No, I WON’T take your burger back because you don’t like pickles! Pick the damn pickles off! We have to throw away what you send back – a cow DIED for you and you’re being wasteful!!!!)
    Yes, the have a nice day stuff grates on me, too, because I know most of it is insincere – but we don’t live in an honest society and don’t expect to.
    So, in the meantime, trying to be mindful of other people when I’m on the customer side of it and to create the narrative of “these are humans” can be helpful. Good for calming rage. In the meantime, I also tend to clean up after my own damn self when I’m at a restraunt or something. I think that when I was at the movies the other day and the ushers at the door saw me throwing away my refuse, they were genuine when they thanked me for throwing away my trash. I imagine the stuff they have to put up with in cleaning the rows.

  • Hth

    That’s a great story, and I think that’s really all the video/speech was talking about. In spite of the fact that some people seem to think that being self-involved is a unique attribute of the middle-class (HA HA HA), most of us at our root do operate at our two-year-old nature — “This is ridiculous! It’s obvious that I need it!” is how we react to being balked in almost any desire, and I call shenanigans on anyone who says otherwise. What’s amazing about us is that, even when our desires aren’t being met — hell, even when our *needs* aren’t being met — we can enjoy each other and the general experience of being alive.

    Does that mean it’s okay that our needs aren’t met? No one’s saying that. But *lots of people* throughout human history who have it just as bad as you (whoever you might be) do, or even worse, have chosen joy and love — and yes, it is not only a choice, but a discipline. It comes more naturally to some people than others, like everything, but what’s the alternative? The world will rob you of your joy one way or another, unless you fight for it. I fight for it every damn day, and some days I win. “Choose a new way of thinking” is annoying because it makes it sound easy, or like a one-shot thing. It’s more like when you hit problems in your relationship and you choose to work on them, only instead of a relationship with one person, we’re talking about your relationship to the world as a whole.

  • JustoneK

    I really am thinking our culture, particularly for the working class side of things, is gradually making suppressed rage the norm (again?). Retail hell and food services and janitorial etc p much require you to be happy and smiling all the time so you make the corporation look good, while working umpty hours a week for ramen and clean water. I don’t think it’s an accident that it’s gotten normal to Other those “not career” workers. Cuz it’s primarily the ruling classes what those corporations cater to. And we don’t have robots because they can continue to cut costs on a minimum of workers for maximum of hours and I’m rambling.

    I try to be as good as possible to anyone who serves me. :/ Everything is fucked up and I do not help by making their day worse.

  • Persia

    Yeah, I try to use the manned rather than self unless there’s a huge line or some other issue. Plus I find, even though I’m not normally a people person, the transaction is better for having a person there.

  • I had forgotten that scene – it’s been a while since I watched the movie, so little character-building moments like that get overshadowed in my memory by the big, iconic, climactic scenes… but yeah, there’s the food stamps scene, and there’s the school bus scene, and it really puts that character’s adult transgressions in context.

    (I think everyone should see Ink. It is beautiful.)

  • Possibly related: A friend of mine got me in the habit, when stuck in traffic and watching some person Drive Like An Asshole (cutting someone off in traffic, etc.), of telling fantastical stories to myself about why that person was Driving Like an Asshole. “Little did everyone know, he had to hurry like the blazes to get there in time to save the kitten falling out of the tree!” The sillier the story, the better. Then we’d be laughing instead of annoyed.

  • The grocery store wouldn’t be so boring if there were words zipping around everywhere while I stood in line.

  • P J Evans

    If I have stuff like that, I’ll stand in line. (These days, the code number is usually on the little label: regular bananas, 4011.)

  • EllieMurasaki

    wanting to tell people things like “No, I WON’T take your burger back because you don’t like pickles! Pick the damn pickles off! We have to throw away what you send back – a cow DIED for you and you’re being wasteful!!!!

    While I sympathize, if the problem is a food allergy…I know people can die of onion allergy if they eat anything an onion touched.

  • ReverendRef

    Personally, I refuse to use the self-checkout lines. In the first place, it’s supporting management’s decision to cut employees (as Leum pointed out).

    Second, just from watching them, they aren’t all that wonderful as they still require an employee to babysit them and solve problems. And if I have to wait for that, I might was well wait in line for a real person.

    And third, using self-checkout is like going to a restaurant, ordering a meal, and then being taken to the kitchen to cook the meal. The restaurant isn’t paying me to cook my meal, neither is the store paying me to checkout my own groceries.

  • Ursula L

    I don’t think I’ve ever screamed while driving. I make a game of letting people pass in front of me, and it works fine. I don’t have the nerves to speed, or to try to block someone when they need to change lanes.

    There are times when people annoy me, and I’m extremely introverted, so that too many people around definitely causes overload.

    But I deal with it largely by being quite careful about controlling the amount of time I spend around others, and by making a point to keep interactions peaceful Wishing shop clerks a nice day first, always ensuring space so that others can pass/change lanes in front of me while driving, etc.

  • storiteller

    There’s a great story on one of the funny “mommy blogs” about a similar experience. How after having an older woman help put things in gentle perspective, she did the same thing for another mom having a particularly difficult day:

  • Mira

    To be fair, he did give this speech in 2005, when the economy was
    better, at an elite residential college with a pretty young student
    body. There was a better prospect of white-collar nine-to-five-jobs in
    that context than there is for most today. The video is 2013, the
    words are not.

    And when I read it initially a few years ago, it
    came off to me as someone sharing his own experiences and struggles with
    how to live a decent life. When he said, “This is not a matter of
    virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self,” I was like,
    “Yeah, I have that problem too!” And knowing how many years he lived
    with depression, I don’t think he was presenting it as a spiritual
    discipline he’d really mastered, but as a battle he had to fight every

    I’m sure it doesn’t speak to every college graduate, and it
    certainly doesn’t address issues of employment or structural inequality
    and injustice. But I’ve never heard a commencement speech that did,
    sadly, and I prefer this to the usual “Just work really hard, follow
    your dreams, and success will come!”

  • There’s a scene where he, as a child, has to weather the derisive
    stares of people as his mother pays for groceries with food stamps.

    There’s a similar, albeit less emotionally intense, scene like that in Love Lies Bleeding. It’s a fairly hokey, medium-budget movie, but it has some interesting motifs and juxtapositions.

    In one scene, a woman on food stamps has to reluctantly ask the cashier (one of the main characters) to remove some items from her groceries to keep the total under what the food stamps provide.

    Then another woman walks into the store and her kid nags for some money. She hands the little one a real greenback.

    And the entire scene really brings out the sheer grind that lacking money brings.

  • aklab

    I love this story. Reminds me of some grocery shopping experiences I’ve had with my hyperverbal daughter. :)

  • aklab

    This is exactly what I do in customer service. You don’t know why this customer is rude or angry or inattentive, and imagining a story about them makes it go much better.

  • Yes. An important tip when working customer service is that customers don’t know if you’re smiling because you’re friendly and a happy worker or if you’re smiling because you’re imagining them being eaten by piranhas.