The “rabbit” poem. Any mention of Wallace Stevens will pique my interest and when Adam Plunkett’s piece, ‘King of the Ghosts’ in N+1 said that David Foster Wallace had this poem on his mind in the last month of his life, I immediately investigated.
Sin reaps two terrible consequences. One consequence is spiritual bondage (Rom 6: 15– 18). We may believe in God or we may not believe, but either way, we never make him our greatest hope, good, or love. We try to maintain control of our lives by living for other things — for money, career, family, fame, romance, sex, power, comfort, social and political causes, or something else. But the result is always a loss of control, a form of slavery. Everyone has to live for something, and if that something is not God, then we are driven by that thing we live for — by overwork to achieve it, by inordinate fear if it is threatened, deep anger if it is being blocked, and inconsolable despair if it is lost. So the novelist David Foster Wallace, not long before his suicide, spoke these words to the 2005 graduating class at Kenyon College:
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship . And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… 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… Worship your 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 grieve you… Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid , and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is… they’re unconscious. They are default settings.
Keller, Timothy J. (2012-09-04). Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City (Kindle Locations 665-677). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
Sibbes here makes an interesting observation: without some restraint which is greater than our soul, we will fall into a drowning despair. He states this positively, as something which one who claims to knowing God must claim:
Moreover we see that a godly man can cast a restraint upon himself, as David here stays himself in falling. There is a principle of grace, that stops the heart, and pulls in the reins again when the affections are loose. A carnal man, when he begins to be cast down, sinks lower and lower, until he sinks into despair, as lead sinks into the bottom of the sea.
David Foster Wallace in his essay “Shipping Out”, makes this point in nearly the same language as Sibbes (which is all the more painful, in light of his own eventual suicide):
Some weeks before I underwent my own Luxury Cruise, A 16 – year – old mail did a half gainer off the upper deck of a Megaship. The news version of the suicide was that it had been an unhappy adolescent love thing, I shipboard romance gone bad. But I think part if it was something no new story could cover. There’s something about a mass– Market luxury cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad thing is, it seems incredibly elusive and complex and its causes yet simple in its effect: onboard the Nadir (especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety ceased) I felt despair. The word “despair” is overused and banalized now, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. It’s close to what people called to read or angst, but it’s not these things, quite it’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable sadness of knowing I’m small and weak and selfish and going, without doubt, to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard (Harper’s Magazine, January 1996, p. 350)
‘They sunk, they sunk, like lead in the mighty waters,’ Exod. 15:5. A carnal man sinks as a heavy body to the centre of the earth, and stays not if it be not stopped: there is nothing in him to stay him in falling, as we see in Ahithophel and Saul, 2 Sam. 17:23, who, wanting a support, found no other stay but the sword’s point. And the greater their parts and places are, the more they entangle themselves; and no wonder, for they are to encounter with God and his deputy, conscience, who is King of kings, and Lord of lords.
Thus, despair should not strike us as a strange thing; rather we must understand that such despair is the default setting which shows itself as soon as our stays and distractions fail. Yet such must not be the default of one who claims to know Christ, “Therefore as we would have any good evidence that we have a better spirit in us than our own, greater than the flesh or the world, let us, in all troubles we meet with, gather up ourselves, that the stream of our own affections carry us not away too far.”
The weight of this despair comes not merely from the trouble itself, but from trying to carry a weight which is beyond our ability. Wallace writes of knowing “I’m small and weak and selfish and going, without doubt, to die.” Realizing our frailty and our troubles will easily crush us. Thus, it is precisely at this point that we must turn our frailty to advantage and bring the trouble to one who can bear the weight. In Matthew 11:28, the Lord calls, “Come to me all you labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
Sibbes explains the mechanism for how we increase our sorrow by bearing a burden which should never have been ours:
There is an art or skill of bearing troubles, if we could learn it, without overmuch troubling of ourselves, as in bearing of a burden there is a way so to poise it that it weigheth not over heavy: if it hangs all on one side, it poises the body down. The greater part of our troubles we pull upon ourselves, by not parting our care so, as to take upon us only the care of duty, and leave the rest to God; and by mingling our passions with our crosses, and like a foolish patient, chewing the pills which we should swallow down. We dwell too much upon the grief, when we should remove the soul higher. We are nearest neighbours unto ourselves. When we suffer grief, like a canker, to eat into the soul, and like a fire in the bones, to consume the marrow and drink up the spirits, we are accessory to the wrong done both to our bodies and souls: we waste our own candle, and put out our light.
The previous post in this series may be found