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.