On OVER-THINKING And PERSONAL ANALYTICAL THINKING and Other Thoughts Inspired by What Seemed to be the Sad End of David Foster Wallace

    When I say PERSONAL ANALYTICAL THINKING, I do not mean introspection nor do I necessarily imply the depression that comes with it. I mean the attempt we all make to constantly frame ourselves in an objective box of our own making so that, in order to better understand the world, we first go to what we think we ought to understand the best, which is ourselves. But, we cannot understand ourselves by simply reasoning our way through ourselves; that is self-parasitic and constant judgment should be remedied not by judgment every now and then, but rather by the conviction of the Holy Spirit. We leave the sorting of details to God. Experience and enjoyment is for us.
     To make talk of talk–and to have it come so naturally–is actually a bad habit and it is, I think, an effect of a culture steeped in irony as a humor and individual experience as the highest truth (and individual pioneering: “I will figure it out myself!” Is this a small portion of the American dream? We figured everything else out ourselves, now all we have left is to figure ourselves out ourselves?” How many naturalistic scientists or skeptics are falling apart inside from a debilitating venom of unending self-inspection?). Because these are the two forms, or something close to them, that dominate the output of our imaginations, they are the forms that must be conquered. If we believe that classic and everlasting masterpieces come from a dominance and innovation on the accepted form of things, then these are the frontiers.
     Or, if you don’t care for the everlasting, you can throw away the incurvatus in se our culture has made for itself, constantly inspecting ourselves and making a game out of it. How far can he go in inspecting himself? This is the plague of imagination and reasoning. Why am I so obsessed with lifting up plates and pulling out bolts? If I don’t know how it was put together in the first place, me, I will have no idea how to put it, me, back together. These are things people kill themselves over. We can hardly see past ourselves and analyzing our motivations and the labyrinths and complexities of our experience (which is endlessly detailed), before we can even get to more interesting ground, like, “Why is the world the way it is?” By making the understanding of individual experience a field of study at all, we have forsaken all other fields of study, which once came so healthily to us as children. Or something. I don’t know.
     Lest someone say, “Well, you must just be depressed or neurotic” no, that is not the tonality of this constant mental exercise (PAT) I commit myself to. The tone is not one of emotion; it is one of precision. I want to be as precise about every detail about my life as possible. It is mental primping–I am not the only one, either. It is the thing that flies to do their antennas with their legs, constantly, constantly. It is over-thinking and it is the death of our imagination. It is rational, unempathetic, intellectual. It is the hell of naturalists. It was suicide, I’d argue, for David Foster Wallace, it is doubt for others, the constant need for affirmation in someone else, and a perpetual frustration for me.
     It is also, I think, a result of the excess of image and shame we must daily deal with. Every age and community has had its image to which people either feel pressure to conform to or not conform to. The difficulty in our age–and especially in the confines of Christian cultural walls–is that there are very many things we cannot be, but very many things we seem to be so easily.
     I think the greatest poison facing our culture today (besides a distaste for purity and a disregard for prayer) is how people deal with their individual experience. It is a topic of conversation, this constant affirmation or denial of what or where we are or are not, and it clogs up conversations and I get tense whenever it comes up. I hate it in other people, because I hate it in myself.
     Ironically, it comes from our attempt to deal with our experience and to make our individual experience something that stands true (to stand true is to stand apart) and we are asking ourselves these questions, so that our image can be cultivated, maintained, free of any things we wish we ought not to conform to, whether in private before God or before our peers obsessed with the false image of themselves as personal prophets in our own lives (and how often do we play into this? Tell me about myself, we ask), and we are still entirely dependent on what other people think about us. We fail to see that, although we believe in the purity of our experience, the neat cool crisp air we desire in our own minds (almost a necessity when so many gusts of thick information come roaring through the hallways of our capacities–or something), is an individual journey, tethered to our emotions which possess us or our need for intellectual cleanliness, how we think of our experience cannot be unbound from what others think of us–and what we think of their assessment. This need for figuring out what others think of us (an image only exists with someone to see it) poisons writing, therefore, because writing is merely the community of oneself, a conversation with the self. We treat ourselves like someone else, constantly asking questions that we know we cannot answer, so we turn our writing publicly. And this, in a way, is the seedy side of writing which, as good writing should be, borrows from the personal for an universal application. Instead of benefiting the person reading, it demands blessing from the reader and is a vicious bore to read. There is nothing given to the reader, nothing worked through. All of the work is put into the reader’s lap. And that is why so many personal essays suck. Questions, questions. Give us some answers.
     The person who is always chasing down the “real reasons” behind what they think, treating themselves like someone else, can never give, because they are always given to themselves. They have their backs turned towards their readers and that is not endearing; even though everyone out there might very well feel the same pull to draw in analytically towards themselves (this does not always take an emotional side to it, but it does always set the mood for experience, which if we hold experience to be so dear, we would avoid such crippling analysis and instead delight in the sweet color and filter of self-forgetfulness, innocence, a lack of fear or shame, a disregard for what others think, sheer creation and exploring without the constant tension of, “Who am I and who will set my reputation?” If we are so interested in experience as the highest truth–or even beauty–then we would stop trying to understand it and start trying to enjoy it for what it is; something to laugh at, something to be given, something that will eventually be taken, for gifts are to be consumed and life stands distinct from us).
     If we want to go ahead and master the forms of irony and individual experience, we actually need to use them as means by which we experience glory, not the actual embodiment of glory. To have a deep sense of irony is actually to have a deep sense of biblical paradox foundational to the very nature of existence–or something (this is my escape-hatch-phrase). This is not drama, it’s believe. Irony is the best form of humor, because it is also the truest form of humor, since it evokes the necessity of double meanings, two layers of reality that are both true equally at the same time. If we want to participate in God’s Redemption of his creation, which is the resoddering of the soul and body, of two distinct parts to form one again, then we should also participate in his use of irony. We should be able to sense the irony, whether we laugh or not, of Christ being hung on the Cross under a sign that read, “King of the Jews” and maybe even the deeper irony of the Jews begging his blood to be shed.
     And this resoddering of soul and body is the redemption of our individual experience. If you want to know what that looks like, it is not only the binding of our own soul to our own body, but also the binding of the Trinity to us, so that we become one flesh as a body, but also distinct in our roles as created and Creator. We enter into the irony of the Trinity in our experience, the irony of experience being so physical, so harsh, with such a bulkiness to it, and the calming waters of the Holy Spirit we feel inside and outside, which we not only feel emotionally, but sense as a physical weight.
     Without any sense of this irony, we are probably paralyzed, unable to connect our experience with the larger world around us. We must be indwelled first, so we actually have a means of escape from ourselves. Now, when we look into ourselves, we ought not to see us (how broken we are, how broken I am), but rather the Word that came into the flesh. Individual experience is still universal, yes, but PERSONAL ANALYTICAL THINKING now becomes something we do in partnership with the Holy Spirit and not just ourselves. That is to say, asking questions of ourselves is no longer something we can still do: we are now required, by the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, to ask God our questions. It is called praying. It is called petitioning. It is called confession and repentance of sin. It is called the remedy to anxiety. We no longer look to other people for what image we should take on: we ask God to show us his face again–over and over again. We see God when we look inside. We forget ourselves and by forgetting, we finally get a face worth looking at, an image worth seeing, our backs are turned once again towards our readers–and we forget.
     This forgetfulness, I hope you know, should not be confused with forgetting the truth of our brokenness and the complete vessel that is Christ. We forget ourselves, so we can actually see ourselves through him. Personal experience transforms into a playground for the Holy Spirit’s activity. He calls us, beckons us, reminds us to look outward, so he can do the work inside, convicting us of where we have become too self-obsessed and self-destructive.
     Personal experience is a means to glory for the Trinity which mutually benefits us, to forsake the fear of shame and even of being mislabeled, to see in any discussion of “images” the only image we ought to conform to, to delight in the universality of irony as a fossil of the foundations of truth, to give into the freedom of handing the meta-narratives over to the Holy Spirit, to refuse to give into viewing ourselves as beings that stand outside ourselves if only we do enough thinking, and to be careless and reckless about how we deal with the details and minutiae of information we are eternally steeped in, whether it be ones about ourselves or the world. There is too much for us to contain, the whole earth is full of His glory. Baptism is a frenzy, don’t be so coy about getting wet–or something. This is a blog post, anyway, not some polished essay.

April 4th, 2015

I believe in the risen Savior, that before he rose, he lay in the grave for three days. He was the firstfruits of the grace I receive daily despite exuberant blessing and the apparent curses that accumulate onto my falling life as it falls like a boat sinking caked with curses like barnacles into a final baptism I too will rise from.

___

I apologize for being “erudite” recently, as one of my friends called it. I am honestly not so sure why I have been. If you are interested in my less “erudite” writing, I will try to keep these journal entries non…erudite.

To describe my life right now would be to give you a snapshot of what blessing looks like. I cannot keep up with all of the thoughts that rain on me at every single moment; I get overwhelmed so easily.

I bought a little book (a libretto) at The Storm Cellar to record my thoughts for the book. When I say “the book,” I am referring to the next book. I would tell you about it–trust me, I would love to–but I made a binding agreement with my friend, Matt, that I would not rant about something that I have not yet finished. So, unfortunately, here I am trying to contain my excitement about this book.

January and February for me were the most active I think I have ever been. My brain and my body were on fire with energy and projects and gorging on the world. The Spring season is shaping up to be a hibernation for me. I felt like I was running to get nowhere those two months and, subsequently, ran over myself.

I love the sun right now. I am sitting in a hammock on a friend’s porch, the birds are singing in some trees about twenty feet away, the wind is the only thing that might make me chill, I am book-ended by two old hanging window panes, moving slightly in the breeze. The sun is screaming (my attempt at poetry) at the shadows, so they are hard to find, shrunken in shrunken corners. I am listening to a song right now, the lyrics to which are below:

Well the rain it has been falling
Like it wants to drown us all
And the trees are gently swaying
Like they’re thinkin’ ‘bout the fall
I still get shivers when I hear
You singin’ down the hall
I’m gonna kiss you all over Ohio

And the starlings they were flying
Earlier today
Doing their maneuvers
Clouds of feathers on display
Makes me wanna kneel in prayer but
I’ve forgotten what to say
I’ll just name all the birds in Ohio

Now the reason I am writing
Is to tell you ‘bout the flood
Ah, the river is so beautiful
But it leaves a load of mud
All I have now are these dirty songs
I guess they’re in my blood
They make me wander so far from Ohio

It’s a silly undertaking
To fly halfway ‘round the earth
With an imaginary womb of songs
Intent on giving birth
I gave all that I had to give
I’m not sure what it’s worth
Scatter the ashes right here in Ohio

All I wanna be is a thousand black birds
Bursting from a tree into the blue
Love – let it be not just a feeling
But the broken beauty
Of what we choose to do

And the halleujah chorus
Used to make my Daddy cry
I still wonder ‘bout the ruckus
Angels make up there on high
In the meanwhile there are measures
We can take to get us by
Lay me down next to you in Ohio

But my expectations stand still
Like beggars at the door
I’m flat broke from the dues
I’ve paid them all before
Gonna let the Cuyahoga
Wash me up on burning shores
Shipwrecked with you in Ohio

I have seen the slow corruption
Of the best ideas of Christ
In the pulpits of our nation
Gospel turned into white lies
If you preach a subtle hatred –
The bible as your alibi
God damn you right here in Ohio

But my shameless hallucination:
He’s still knockin’ at my door
And I know how this one’s gonna end
He’s gotten in before
I’ve run as fast as I can run
I’ve had to ask, What for?
He haunts me all over Ohio

All I wanna be is a thousand black birds
Bursting from a tree into the blue
Love – let it be not just a feeling
But the broken beauty
Of what we choose to do

The best ones, like the Song of Songs, capture the love of Christ for his church. That, at least, is my response to romanticism which could infect me with loneliness. I don’t get lonely, but I can empathize when others are. Sometimes that empathy becomes so deep, I can barely hold myself together. That is not just true for love songs, of course. I sometimes daydream about their days and their dark thoughts.

I saw a guy sitting in public yesterday who I just wanted to ask him how he was doing and give him a smile. He was about fifty, no wedding ring, drinking a beer, and glancing at a group of young couples chattering loudly to their phones. I didn’t talk to him.

New-Old Thoughts, Gould’s NOMA, Methodological Naturalism, Other Scary Terms, Chesterton Cliches, Why Christians Suck at Being Scientists and Writers (Why Atheists Suck Even More), and the Feelies

Back in 2010, when I was thirteen, I wrote my first substantial essay called “Faith and the Bible.” I have since kept it in a folder called “Old Thoughts.” The thoughts in that essay, though, are still very much current and alive for me. Towards the end of the essay, I wrote:

“Lately, everything has looked gray and dark to me. I see everything and truly see vanity. The past few weeks, I have been living an Ecclesiastes life. I’m not bothered by it, but I have been thinking of death a lot. It doesn’t scare me. In a sense, I look forward to it. It is not a death trap, but a gateway to eternal life! But examining myself, I think I am missing something. We are not to ignore the world and just focus completely on death, heaven, and hell. We are still commanded to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Yes, death is inescapable. Yes, we will only be here for a limited time. But if we have been called by God and have accepted Jesus’ substitute and have already thought of the end, we are to focus on fulfilling our duty here. By living like we’re dying, we are to remember that all is vanity outside of our duty.
“Conclusively, let us have joy in our fate. Let us have joy knowing that we have nothing to fear! Let’s not waste time here with vanities, let’s glorify our God. Let’s enjoy Him. Death’s clammy clutches have been severed! Praise the Lord! We are to have joy in this. We are to look forward to an eternity with our God. We are to live for Him. Where is death’s victory? Ha! It has none! Where is the grave’s victory? It has none. Do not ignore the book of the Bible. It will change your fate. God offers mercy to those who look for Him. Have faith in this. There is something I cannot fully explain. It is the feeling you get when you realize that all you have put faith in is the truth. It is the feeling you get when you truly understand that there is nothing to fear. It is the feeling you get when you walk in a graveyard and look at all the names and then you look up at the swaying trees and the crows cawing. This world is amazing. God is amazing. I am so finite and I cannot begin to understand eternity. Praise the Lord. Oh, if we could feel that feeling forever. The wind moves the corn in the field. It’s wonderful. There is something above us we do not fully understand. It is the feeling of eternity. It is the feeling of faith.”
I remember writing that last line, thinking, “Wow, that sounds cheesy. But, what else can I say?” The essay relates to two things I wanted to talk about here: the feelies and methodological naturalism as it relates to literature. How on earth I figured out it related, I do not know. Let’s unbind the mysteries of old thoughts together.
One thing I noticed in the essay (besides the scary realization that my writing hasn’t much improved besides a cut back on exclamation marks) is that it hits exactly where I need to be hit right now. We are such feeling creatures. I have every reason in the world to be a Christian, having never been closer to my heavenly Father as much as I am now, and yet I find myself praying for the feelies.
If I start talking about our relationship with feeling long enough and how we can use them to figure things out about reality (the harsh bulkiness of experience), I will unfortunately get quite erudite and lose my train of thought. I will save that discussion, maybe, for future theories I make when I have the mental stamina to take both you and myself there.
For now, let me just say that feeling the presence of God in nature and in our experience is an acute aid to belief. Unfortunately, we are guaranteed to sometimes be submerged (the passive voice is not something to be avoided) under various fogs, whether they be ones of productivity or doubt, and cannot see the light of wonder above us that only penetrates so far under the surface of our own prisons. I often ask the Lord for something along the lines of “Father, make yourself realized to me and my friends who just want to be near you. I am blameless before you. Make yourself realized. Christianity is not just a social club, I know. But sometimes, I don’t believe it. I sometimes live like an atheist. But, Father, I know that atheism doesn’t work; it is too secretive about its foundations.” All of this is I would affirm now, which means that I went from believing that science (the pursuit of knowledge) and the feelies (faith) were inextricably tied, to damning any connections (youthful pride), to being unable to de-knit them. I had something in my bones at thirteen I need again, over and over again. Here are some excerpts from the essay showing my past perspective:
“No, I’m not trying to do that [prove the existence of God]. I’m trying to show you that science and faith are not opposed! They are in union!”
and,
“Now some people claim that science and religion are rivals, but that is not the case! As I have stated before, science requires some faith. Well, faith requires some science (or reason). Christianity has an endless amount of evidence for the claims presented in the Bible. Let’s just take a few right now…”
At thirteen, I was an evidentialist and would have been pretty uncomfortable with methodological naturalism, the idea that we ought not to bring our religious faith into science.
But, at about fifteen, I found Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA and thought it made sense. The magisteria of the church and of science ought not to overlap, because they don’t have to. As high school progressed, I quickly became a theistic evolutionist. I talked to my mentors in my life who thought the same and I subsequently toyed with other very minor intellectual rebellions. I have not fully forsaken a lot of those rebellions, but they have been tamed by orthodoxy.
In the essay (did I know it?), I placed the focus of being close to God on the submergence of ourselves into the mysteries of his created details. The most appealing thing about methodological naturalism is that it prohibits God ever being a cause for the things studied. This appears to work in the study of details. It explicitly does not work, however for the study of origins, but it does relate to a discussion of our chief end and how we ought to approach the study of created details. Let me explain.
Methodological naturalism is ultimately flawed, because it is too compartmentalized and fails to come to terms with the reality of relationship. Relationship, as my philosophy professor argued in an excellent speech recently (thanks, Dr. Stokes) is the beating heart of understanding. Methodological naturalism, however, can never even get to the point where the truth is nuanced enough to leave room for what would be its opposite (the importance of relationship). Give me more time to develop this for you.
Forget methodological naturalism for a second. The truth is, anyone who tries to do science (the study of created details) is going to do a bad job if they do not see God in everything. This means that both an atheist and a Christian can miss the point. Anyone who approaches science by trying to make it spiritual and constantly goes back to God as an obvious cause (as if the details of Creation were not holy and sacred enough) does not see that God as a cause for the details does not have to be our conclusion as Christians, because it is the assumption. The atheist who does science without assuming that God is in everything will fail to study the details, because he has no direction for his appreciation (this is a far bigger problem than people think). Here’s another example of what I am saying.
People fail to see God in the details within other disciplines, too. The reason most Christians suck at writing fiction is because they do not see the fiction and the details of writing as God-acts, but instead believe that making spiritual messages is a fulfillment of our chief end.  Most Christians do not see God in the details, but rather in their false sense of the spiritual. They suck at writing, because they do not read “enjoy God and glorify Him forever” as a declaration to stay put where we are, to dance with the details, to be fascinated with the mechanics of reality like God was at the very beginning. We get to know our father the best when we do what he does. The more we focus on the glory of his details, the closer we are drawn to him.
The same thing is true for science. Science ought to be the unraveling of designs God put there a very long time ago for us to find. It is the glory of kings to delicately peel back the petals of God’s designs, so that by studying Creation, we study his very nature.
We cannot be methodological naturalists in the lab (I think I am being loose with that term now), because it defeats the purpose of the disciplines. It also fails to grasp the nature of the problem. It does not solve a problem–it makes one by assuming one.
I did not understand at thirteen that God loves the mechanics of fiction, the movement of radiolarians, the life cycle of Bufo boreas, and the history we fish in.
Salvation does not come through academia or studying nature, though. Not everyone has to be an academic or an intellectual. But, everyone has to be curious. It should be a federal law. People who do not walk around with the question “How does this work?” have a serious problem they’re probably ignoring.
I am not being extreme or trying to be provocative, either. The fellowship of the living as the fellowship of the dead rotates impossibly around us, has received a generational and unlikely gift that came with directions: “Explore this.” Some may go deeper into the mysteries of experience, like King Solomon, but we are all to play our part before our time ends.
The steps to the dance we are in come from our constant need to re-approach the same existential issues anew. We do this, not out of a repetition of what we know, but a reminder of what we forget. We forget the truths we assume; we must see them anew every day, within every discipline, within every detail. We forget the truth that the sting of death is salved by our proximity to our heavenly Father within the created details we think are the very things getting in the way of our relationship. It is the feeling of faith, or something.