To Toil and Not to Seek for Rest: Prayer in Infinite Jest

There are no atheists in halfway houses. Of course, they might enter the door as self-identified agnostics or nonbelievers, but to maintain a residence as part of a 12-step recovery program at such a halfway house they will be required to at least go through the motions. Rob mentioned that many, many of the earliest AA members butted up against this “higher power” requirement and declared that they were agnostics, too. AA, of course, butted right back and said Just Do It, Fake it Til You Make It, etc. And if you can’t fathom a higher power, AA itself can be your higher power. But here’s another barrier you might have: pray to this higher power. And this requirement might cause one to step back and contemplate just what is prayer, really?

“…and when people with AA time strongly advise you to keep coming you nod robotically and keep coming, and you sweep floors and scrub out ashtrays and fill stained steel urns with hideous coffee, and you keep getting ritually down on your big knees every morning and night asking for help from a sky that still seems a burnished shield against all who would ask aid of it — how can you pray to a ‘God’ you believe only morons believe in, still?”

At the end of his 1996 interview with David Foster Wallace, David Lipsky looks around Wallace’s house and sees a postcard tacked to the wall. That postcard contains the prayer of St. Ignatius.

Lord, teach me to be generous

To serve you as you deserve

To give and not to count the cost

To fight and not to heed the wounds

To toil and not to seek for rest

To labor and not ask for reward,

Save that of knowing that I do your will.

 

This is often called “St. Ignatius’s Prayer” or the Prayer for Generosity. (BTW, Richard Powers wrote a book shortly after Wallace’s death called Generosity that includes a writing instructor who is losing is faith in writing. And “Ignatius” immediately calls to mind Ignatius J. Reilly, to me. There are a lot of parallels between Confederacy of Dunces and Infinite Jest, and of course John Kennedy Toole was a depressive who committed suicide at a young age.)

In Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, Lipsky says this reminds him of the AA prayer, which is also known as the Serenity Prayer. The Serenity Prayer is probably repeated at 99% of all AA meetings. However, there are some other AA/12-step prayers related to specific needs or steps.

http://www.12steps.org/12stephelp/prayers.htm

The full version of the Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Niebuhr goes like this:

God, give me grace to accept with serenity

the things that cannot be changed,

Courage to change the things

which should be changed,

and the Wisdom to distinguish

the one from the other.

Living one day at a time,

Enjoying one moment at a time,

Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,

Taking, as Jesus did,

This sinful world as it is,

Not as I would have it,

Trusting that You will make all things right,

If I surrender to Your will,

So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,

And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

 

This longer version (which is not the one oft-repeated at AA) adds several AA concepts like accepting hardship, One Day at a Time, and surrendering the will as a requirement for reasonable happiness.

But in the halfway house, reasonable happiness is often far in the distance. An Ennet House resident drops in to Pat Montesian’s office and says “I’m awfully sorry to bother. I can come back. I was wondering if maybe there was any special Program prayer for when you want to hang yourself.”

Gately struggles, though not as fatalistically, with the prayer thing.

“He says when he tries to pray he gets this like image in his mind’s eye of the brainwaves or whatever of his prayers going out and out, with nothing to stop them, going, going, radiating out into like space and outliving him and still going and never hitting Anything out there, much less Something with an ear. Much much less Something with an ear that could possibly give a rat’s ass. He’s both pissed off and ashamed to be talking about this instead of how just completely good it is to just be getting through the day without ingesting a Substance, but there it is.”

Wallace works hard to convey exactly how AA works—and these moments of clarity or epiphany are the end results of that mysterious process, what is essentially a new form of belief. In a fantastic essay published in The Legacy of David Foster Wallace, Lee Konstantinou writes that “What Wallace wants is not so much a religious correction to secular skepticism allegedly run amok as new forms of belief—the adoption of a kind of religious vocabulary (God, prayer, etc.) emptied out of specific content, a vocabulary engineered to confront the possibly insuperable condition of postmodernity.” There is another post coming on that idea of “a vocabulary engineered to confront” but what rings true here is the way AA functioned (both in fiction and reality) as a new system of belief and a blueprint for life for Wallace.

Zadie Smith told us that “This was his literary preoccupation: the moment when the ego disappears and you’re able to offer up your love as a gift without expectation of reward. At this moment the gift hangs, like Federer’s brilliant serve, between the one who sends and the one who receives, and reveals itself as belonging to neither. We have almost no words for this experience of giving. The one we do have is hopelessly degraded through misuse. The word is prayer.”

 

Thank you for this lovely post, Matt. I think Gately’s AA experience can be seen as an example of existential faith. This faith is not belief in or assent to doctrine, as religion is traditionally conceived to be. (Or, as you say, this is an entirely new kind of belief.)

Instead, Gately’s existential faith is about making choices, day after day, first to surrender to the reality that he has no control and no idea what to do next, and then to accept the power and grace of something larger than himself. This kind of faith does not pretend to offer certainty. Doubt is part of it.

The rest of a passage you quote above expresses the idea of existential faith beautifully:

“[H]ow can you pray to a ‘God’ you believe only morons believe in, still? — but the old guys say it doesn’t yet matter what you believe or don’t believe, Just Do It they say, and like a shock-trained organism without any kind of independent human will you do exactly like you’re told…and not only does the urge to get high stay more or less away, but more general life-quality-type things — just as improbably promised, at first, when you’d Come In — things seem to get progressively somehow better, inside, for a while, then worse, then even better, then for a while worse in a way that’s still somehow better, realer, you feel weirdly unblinded, which is good, even though a lot of the things you now see about yourself and how you’ve lived are horrible to have to see…and at this point you’ve started to have an almost classic sort of Blind Faith in the older guys, a Blind Faith in them born not of zealotry or even belief but just of a chilled conviction that you have no faith whatsoever left in yourself; and now if the older guys say Jump you ask them to hold their hand at the desired height, and now they’ve got you, and you’re free.” (350-351)

And oh those words from Zadie Smith! The moment between the sender and the receiver — the space between them as its own experience or prayer.

This put me in mind of Mary Oliver’s poem “The Summer Day” and its idea of prayer:

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
—Mary Oliver

Great post and comments!

Eager to read your forthcoming post on “the vocabulary to confront.”

Lots in IJ about gestures of supplication e.g. in the locker room scene, the defecation posture is seen as one of supplication, and in the chapter when J.O.I’s dad takes a fall and is on his knees, also described as a posture of supplication.

Was reading Giorgio Agamben earlier today: Gestures communicate what speech can’t + have an invisible presence, and are basically not phony.

Am tracking these gestures of supplication and will soon share!

Goodnight from The Great Convexity.

Jill, thanks a lot for the poem. The quality of attention in it is really lovely.

 

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