Truth: Our Unfillable Void
“Here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship — is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.“
– David Foster Wallace
(for a version of this article with audio excerpt, see here)
There is no such thing as not worshipping.
Is this true?
If you’ve never decided to “worship” anything — how can this possibly be? David Foster Wallace’s point is this: no matter what, you wake up every day spend time. These are your habits. We all worship our habits.
His challenge then, is to ask what are your habits, and why?
This may seem absolutely pointless. Yet, this exploration can be radical.
Why Do You Do X?
Let’s say I offered you $5000, and I said, for one week, every 30 minutes, a timer will go off on your phone. When it does, you must open a journal and write a sentence about what you are doing in that moment, and why.
Let’s imagine what that journal entries look like…
What: taking a shower. Why: to clean myself.
What: working. Why: to make money.
What: eating. Why: to feed myself.
Not very interesting. How about some other ones.
What: watching tiktok. Why: to distract myself.
What: drinking some wine. Why: I’m stressed.
What: shopping. Why: makes me happy.
What: netflix. Why: I love this show.
What: twitter. Why: I need to stay informed.
Here is where the rabbit hole begins.
Infinite new questions arise: how often do you do these things in your life? Why do you love this show? Why does shopping make you happy? What are you distracting yourself from? Why do you need to relax? Questions lead to questions lead to questions…
The point of this is not to imply that any of these habits are right, or wrong, or should be avoided. Rather, two things:
- Notice, we are always DOING something… what drives us?
- Have we thought deeply about why we do, what we do?
The Relentless Craving Mind
Our brains are miraculous. They throw tiny cravings at us all day long… “I think I want this now”. And typically, we follow along. Like a dog on a leash. Our brain tugs the leash in some direction and away we go.
The purpose of this is survival. We are CONSTANTLY ready to adapt to our environment and our brains are shooting ideas at us on how to do so. Every craving has a tiny reward attached to it. Some feeling of satisfaction when you attain the craving.
Is it possible to pay close attention to the craving before we go along for the ride? Is it possible for this craving machine ever be fully satisfied?
The Unfillable Void
Here is the “Truth”.
The craving machine never stops. The craving machine can never be permanently satisfied. Next time your brain tugs your leash, try paying close attention to the entire process.
- A craving pops into your mind
- You satisfy the craving
- You feel satisfied
- Satisfaction fades
- A new craving arises
OK. Now what?
Option 1 — Embrace the Void
It is extremely powerful to understand you are attached to a relentless craving machine that can never be permanently happy. No matter what craving you chase, whether it is one that you can satisfy immediately, or one that takes years to chase, there is no such thing as being finally, once and for all, happy for life. Paradoxically, noticing this can bring life-changing relief, bliss, and compassion… for yourself, for humanity.
The next time you feel that little itch, to distract yourself, to find some bit of pleasure whether it’s deep euphoria, or something as tiny as checking social media… rather than indulge, you can finally say to yourself, maybe for the very first time in your life:
“Oh. Fuck. That nagging feeling to do something… it’s just part of who we are as humans. And, I don’t actually have to listen! I can simply pay attention to the cravings — watch them come and go. And actually decide which ones are deeply meaningful.”
Again, this does not mean you should ignore all cravings. It simply means your relationship with cravings is now radically transformed. The leash your cravings has on you is now broken. Or at least, you are aware that you don’t always have to go for the ride.
Option 2 — Continue As-Is
No so coincidentally, David Foster Wallace wrote an entire novel, some say one of the greatest of our era, about characters who mindlessly chase their cravings, often with no apparent idea they are doing so, often with very ugly and catastrophic results.
The name of the novel is Infinite Jest.
Whether or not one reads the novel, the premise is something we can learn from. Either we start noticing and thinking carefully about our cravings and habits, or, we simply listen to them and let them run our lives.
How To Embrace the Void?
One of the greatest available tools, mindfulness, is a terrific starting place.
An excellent podcast from Jud Brewer about the craving mind.