The truth will set you free. But only when it is done with you.–David Foster Wallace
I love David Foster Wallace. Truly. I read his essay/review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time called ‘Certainly the End of Something Or Other One Would Sort Of Have To Think’ (Consider The Lobster), and I was hooked. Wallace begins the essay applying the word ‘solipsist‘ to Updike–in my opinion quite appropriately, I might add– and noting that those who hold such a world view feel a particular and rabid fear of death since, from their view, when they die the whole world dies with them. At the conclusion of his lengthy description of both the novel and its parallel to Updike himself, with particular and well nuanced commentary upon the hollow and pretty much pointless misery depicted therein, he remarks again about the main character’s base unhappiness. He concludes with this sentence: “But it never once occurs to him that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.”
And that was it. I was in love with David Foster Wallace from that moment on. Any man who can write an essay using fabulous words like solipsist and also spot and name an asshole when he sees it will win my heart and devotion every time. It was shortly after this that I found out that Wallace was dead. Not that he had just died, because he committed suicide in 2008 and I read that essay in 2011. But after I had pledged undying adoration to this amazing person I found out that he was already dead and there would be no more writings published from this brilliant mind.
Now, I tell that story not so much because I want to talk about David Foster Wallace but because of something I came across that he said.
“The truth will set you free. But only when it is done with you.” — Infinite Jest
I’ve always believed that first part about the truth setting you free. I really believe it does. The majority of problems I’ve had in my life, and I suspect that I will have from time to time into the future due to the simultaneously delightful and debilitating fact that I am a human being, stem from either telling or believing a falsehood. Not just a lie either, mind you. I’m not just talking about something that is factually incorrect, though that certainly falls into this place as well. I mean all the untruths that we believe, are told, tell ourselves, and others.
I think many people might see a difference between fact and truth. Most of the time, I think of truth as being something that is comprised of facts but is in some way more foundational, more meta, far-reaching, and of greater impact. Truths are communicated in a variety of ways including parables, stories, fables, poetry, art and, of course, facts.
There are the truths that our parents and friends tell us. Some of those are correct and some are not. You probably aren’t truly the smartest kid in the class and you also probably aren’t the fattest girl in town, either. Then there are the truths that we tell ourselves. That everything will be ok if you do everything right. That there is, somewhere, out there, the perfect person for you and if you just keep looking, you’ll find them. Also, that the same holds true for the perfect pair of shoes, car, whatever. That if you breathe into your own hand you can tell if you have bad breath. That Spanks really do make you look two sizes smaller. That this time the direct deposit into your checking account will get there before the last check you wrote. That from a distance no one will notice the cat fur on your clothes. That good people don’t have to suffer. That your parents will live forever. That friends will not break your heart. That Christmas and Easter and birthdays and evening phone calls and great weekends will always be just like this. Forever.
Over the past year or so, I’ve come face to face with some real truths. Everything isn’t always going to be ok even if you did everything right. There is not the perfect whatever out there somewhere because people and things are not perfect, but it is certain that there is a pretty damn good chance at having a really good whatever right here. It’s better to carry mints than wonder and it does not matter how much slimmer Spanks makes you look if you still feel fat. Sometimes checks bounce and sometimes they don’t and yes, they will notice the cat fur. People suffer and that’s the good and the bad people and everyone in between and while some of it can be avoided, none of us can avoid it altogether. Your parents don’t live forever and if you think that you’ve come to grips with the reality that some day your parents will die I suggest that no one really comes to grips with that until they are actually dead because it is never what you think it will be. Not only will friends break your heart, you will break theirs, too, but if you’re lucky you figure out how to still be friends. But there is no guarantee. All of the good things in life never stay the same forever. But neither do the bad.
The truth is, TRUTH is often hard to swallow, much less live with, and it has this annoying way of changing everything it touches. It can sometimes seems better to stick with our not so true truths. But the little fictions we tell ourselves are like blinders that keep us from seeing the real picture of our lives; the flawed, broken and sometimes painful but truly beautiful life. Things are not always what I would like for them to be but there are large swaths of my life that are just running over with joy and it is entirely possible that things could be really good if I let them. Plenty of people have hurt me and broken my heart, but I’ve done more than my share of the same and most of it I wouldn’t undo for the world. David Foster Wallace is dead and, far more importantly, so are several people who meant the world to me or made very significant impacts on who I am. But here’s another truth: I am not dead and every day is a new day.
The truth will have its way with you, like it or not. But it does set you free.