Everybody Worships

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. 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 J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some inviolable 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. And so on.

“Look, 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 centre of all creation.

“This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course 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.”

From This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life by David Foster Wallace


14 thoughts on “Everybody Worships

      1. After myself, Wallace was mainly who I had in mind when I commented on an earlier post of yours wondering how many people had killed themselves during a dark night of the soul while on the verge of a psycho-spiritual breakthrough. Much of his work gives the impression of someone struggling with notions of identity and self and only a whisker away from resolving them. Being a celebrity immersed in a culture of hyper-individuality couldn’t have made it easy for him.

        Of course it’s easy to project yourself onto those you admire so it’s probably just my imagination at work.

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        1. Maybe it’s just your imagination, but he does seem to know of what he speaks. Waking up is so hard. You can get flashes of insight and periods when you get it and it all makes sense, and then you lose it again and you’re back down the pit in the darkness banging your head against a brick wall and wondering how it happened.

          It’s so sad he couldn’t escape his darkness – but then, I wonder how many of us ever do.


        2. You know the answer to that one Jess.
          You can’t escape it. Trying just makes it stronger. Ya gotta embrace it.

          I think DFW misses the mark a little in This is Water. Yeah, you’ve gotta overcome the primacy of self and you can’t do it as a moral exercise. Morality is another one of those objects of worship that eats you alive. But exercising faux empathy by trying to imagine yourself into the position of others ain’t that much of an improvement. It’s ultimately just a projection of the self and all you’re gonna see is a reflection of yourself distorted by your assumptions about others. Whether the guy in the Hummer cut you off because he’s rushing his sick kid to the hospital or because he’s just an arsehole is irrelevant. You can choose to either be open and accepting – drawing no boundaries between yourself and everyone/everything else – or you can be judgemental and resistant – pushing back at the aspects of experience that transgress or trespass on your notion of who you are and how the universe should treat you.

          Wallace had a crippling handicap. The projection of other people onto him (just like I’m doing now). Millions who’d never met him had firm opinions about him. Can you imagine how hard it would have been to let go of the need to assert who you think you are in the face of all those people trying to make you fit their own caricatures? Another form of self worship. Empty and fraudulent.

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        3. Oh yeah. Another mistake I think Wallace makes is when he talks about the tedium of doing the same thing day in, day out and how it wears away your humanity.

          The trite response is that there’s no ‘day in, day out’. There’s just now. Immediacy is never boring.

          But the real problem is induction. The tendency of the intellect to generalise from the specific.

          No two things are the same. No two people. No two apples. No two computer bits. Certainly no two days. But we reduce things to their ‘essentials’ – blurring away their infinite variations – so we can more easily classify, manipulate and predict them. The price is a grey fog that obscures the illimitable colours of existence. Maybe the real essentials are the things we simplify away.

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        4. Many years ago, when I was leaving home to go to work, I was bitching to myself about how every day was the same and how boring it all was. Then as I came out of the flats, I looked up at the road bridge that passes over the little valley where I live, and there was a man standing looking down at a dog who was sitting beside the man and looking up at him. As I watched, the dog lifted its paw and the man took it in his hand and shook it – all very solemn, it seemed to be from my perspective.

          And I thought, “Well, I’ve never seen that from that angle before.” And I had to stop bitching about sameness. Such a simple thing, and it woke me up in the moment. Sometimes that’s all it takes…


        5. I once read a Wallace quote to the effect that he receives half a million pieces of information per day of which 25 are important. Obviously he wasn’t being absolutely literal but I’d hate to think he believed the sense of that statement.

          Also gotta wonder if he ever turned that planet-sized brain of his towards critical analysis of psychiatric treatment. Even if he considered clinical trial results to be among the 499,975 unimportant pieces of daily information you’d have thought the effect ECT had on Ernest Hemingway and Sylvia Plath might have given him pause for thought.

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        6. I think I’ve pretty much given up blogging. I just keep rephrasing what I’ve already said, which as often as not is what other people have already said more eloquently.

          I’ve gotta admit I’ve been sorely tempted over the past month to use Robin Murray’s belated and incomplete mea culpa to score some cheap points off the ideology that predominates in mainstream psychiatry but in that, as with my attempts to articulate my mystical/psychotic insights, I would just be preaching to the choir again. Either you already get it or there’s nothing I can say that would mean much to you.

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        7. Maybe that’s because you already know what I’m trying to say in them. Apart from the odd illustrative factoid have I ever written anything that was new to you? Other than turning you on to Chris Smither that is. Still, I guess that’s a biggie.

          There’s a word that’s recently become popular in the media to describe a group of people who keep telling each other what they already believe. Bubble. If you keep blowing them over and over you’re no longer bubbling. You’re frothing.

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