Choosing to pay attention

These where some memorable lines in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest:

You can be shaped, or you can be broken. There is not much in between. Try to learn. Be coachable. Try to learn from everybody, especially those who fail. This is hard. . . . How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away.

In the novel, the context of these lines are a conversation about competitive tennis. But of course they’re ultimately about life. Like it or not we’re all in the great Game, and there is no opting out. We can only choose to try and learn from our mistakes and, more importantly, from the mistakes of others.

As the experience of life shapes us…and, at times breaks us…our task is about “being conscious and aware enough to choose what [we] pay attention to and to choose how [we] construct meaning from experience.”* This is how we shape ourselves. It’s very hard. It can take a lifetime. But no one said the Game would be easy. It can crush you. But we’re better off to keep trying, to keep learning, to keep playing on, to pay attention…and to consciously choose.

“the cause…we never faltered in defending”

Here, without contemplating consequences, before High Heaven, and in the face of the world, I swear eternal fidelity, to the just cause, as I deem it, of the land of my life, my liberty and my love—And who, that thinks with me, will not fearlessly adopt the oath that I take. Let none falter, who thinks he is right, and we may succeed. But, if after all, we shall fail, be it so—We still shall have the proud consolation of saying to our conscience, and to the departed shade of our country’s freedom, that the cause approved of our judgement, and adored of our hearts, in disaster, in chains, in torture, in death, we never faltered in defending.

— Abraham Lincoln

Amen.

#ImpeachmentVote

Fitzgerald’s lament

F. Scott Fitzgerald:

Once one is caught up into the material world not one person in ten thousand finds the time to form literary taste, to examine the validity of philosophic concepts for himself, or to form what, for lack of a better phrase, I might call the wise and tragic sense of life. By this I mean the thing that lies behind all great careers, from Shakespeare’s to Abraham Lincoln’s, and as far back as there are books to read — the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not “happiness and pleasure” but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.

The allure of beauty

“What quality is it that contains at once this simplicity and this majesty, this softness and this strength? . . . It is what all of Us — the terribly intelligent, the unhappy, the artistic, the divided, the overwhelmed — most intimately worship, and most passionately, most vainly love.”

— Lytton Strachey

The growing gap between the educated and uneducated is a serious threat to our way of life

“Any nation that expects to be ignorant and free,” Jefferson said, “expects what never was and never will be.” And if the gap between the educated and the uneducated in America continues to grow as it is in our time, as fast as or faster than the gap between the rich and the poor, the gap between the educated and the uneducated is going to be of greater consequence and the more serious threat to our way of life. We must not, by any means, misunderstand that. 

— David McCullough