I heard a moving sermon recently that incorporated the now famous commencement address that David Foster Wallace delivered at Kenyon College in 2005. You know, the one where he says things like "learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think" and "the really important kind of freedom involves attention...and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day."
It's a profound message, equal parts dense and charming, as only David Foster Wallace can be. I've heard it and read it many times before and as I sat listening to the recording once more, waiting to be inspired as I always am, I was struck with this line: "The capital- T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to 30, or maybe 50, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head." What a great line, I thought. But also, I wonder if my pastor knows that David Foster Wallace committed suicide?
This shouldn't really matter, right? The fact that David Foster Wallace would succumb to years of clinical depression and lose his life to suicide just a few years after this speech doesn't somehow negate it's effects, erase it's legacy. Does it?
I'm reminded of another literary role model of mine whose fate fell into a similar controversy, at least in one of my college classrooms. I first read Lucy Grealy's Autobiography of a Face in my freshman Women's Literature course. I was instantly transfixed by the elegance of her prose, as well as her brutal honesty and insight. She seemed to understand that there was nothing insignificant in this life when she wrote "sometimes the briefest moments capture us, force us to take them in, and demand that we live the rest of our lives in reference to them."
In our first discussion after finishing the novel, the class seemed to have overwhelmingly positive responses to the work. They were moved by her experiences as a cancer survivor and the way this affected her physical appearance. They were inspired by the poetry of her writing. It was a wonderful discussion, one of those rare moments where a piece of writing just seems to click, to speak to a group of people and draw them together.
Then, somebody in the room pointed to the afterword, where it was explained that Lucy Grealy died of a drug overdose after becoming dependent on prescription painkillers as a result of her last of many facial reconstructive surgeries. A tragic end for an incredible writer and a beautiful soul.
The tone in the room shifted quickly. A girl raised her hand and asked "Why are we even reading this book then?"
"Why do you ask that?" My professor responded.
"Because everything she wrote about was crap. In the end, she was just a druggie who OD'ed."
I could understand where this young woman was coming from. We left Grealy in a relatively content place at the end of her memoir. This news was certainly disheartening. My professor tried to turn the discussion into a literary one. She asked how including the afterword changed the tone and structure of the book. But the students weren't interested in that. Many of them felt duped. As though they had been tricked into feeling moved and inspired by a woman who wasn't who she claimed to be.
But the events in Autobiography of a Face covered a different time in her life then the time of her death. Just as the thoughts that David Foster Wallace expressed in his Kenyon College commencement address were reflective of that particular day in 2005. Yes, both of these stories were written down and published and have outlived their authors. And, both of these authors have died tragically in ways that some may argue detract from the message of the works.
But, that's not really fair. What we read about in Autobiography of a Face is just a part of Lucy Grealy's whole life story. We can be moved and inspired by the journey she shares in those pages, by her incredible narrative gift, and still understand that this text does not make up the entirety of Lucy Grealy as a complicated and multi-dimensional human being.
In the same light, we can be inspired by David Foster Wallace's thoughts on May 21, 2005, the brilliance of what he has to offer on choosing how to think and why that matters, and still appreciate the mental illness that plagued his adult life.
We cannot expect our role models, those people who inspire us, literary or otherwise, to be good all the time. Of course, it is disappointing when they make mistakes or don't live up to what we perceive is so good and inspiring about them in the first place. And we want them to be well and healthy and happy all the time. Some kind of human ideal we all know doesn't exist, but hope for anyway.
But we cannot let this essential humanity one might show at any given time scare us away from admiring people, from loving people, from seeing the good and tender acts that people commit every day and thinking "I can do that. I can live like that. I can be like that."
This is how we all grow. And, at the end of the day, when we find the grace to understand that the people we admire most are not perfect, that sometimes they make poor decisions, they struggle or suffer, then we have the grace to forgive those things in ourselves as well. We are all doing the best we can. And, what's more, we can all continue to strive to be better each new day.