Sunday, September 14, 2008

depression sucks

This morning when I got to work I checked the New York Times online and learned that David Foster Wallace hanged himself on Friday. I never met him or read any of his writing other than his emails to my sister and critiques of her stories, but the news affected me hugely. Here's his Wikipedia bio, but, in a nutshell, he was a literary genius who achieved great fame and success with his novels, short stories, and essays. (The story of his death was the only one not about the election, war, or natural disaster in the "front page" of the Times online.) He was also a college professor. Not the typical famous college professor who gives obligatory lectures and then does his own thing, but a college professor who wrote three-page responses (with footnotes) to his students' two-page stories. For every student, every week.

At work today I read the commencement speech he gave at Kenyon College in 2005, and in it he told the graduates that the most important thing they should get out of their education is not knowledge, but the ability to think. To not be a slave to their automatic thought processes--there is a choice in how they think about themselves and the things that happen to them--and to learn how to get out of their heads and care about other people. This is pretty much the basic theory behind Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which I've been studying a lot lately. David Foster Wallace understood all of this, clearly tried to live his life this way, and was able to reach out to so many people on both an indirect and a personal level. And he still couldn't deal.

Shortly after I read this, I was helping a customer at the register. As he was halfway out the door, he turned to me and said all-knowingly, "Just be happy. It's not that hard." We hadn't discussed anything other than which items on the counter were his, and as the door closed my first thought was that I hoped he'd step out into the street and get hit by a bus. But then I just had to laugh at the absurdity of his timing. For a lot of people, it just IS that hard. And that's the very sad, capital-T Truth.