A conversation starter from David Foster Wallace

Last Sunday I was speaking on Genesis 44, the moment in the Joseph story where Judah confesses the guilt he’s kept secret for 22 years and offers himself as a sacrifice to save his brother Benjamin. You can check out the talk here, if you wish.

I wanted to illustrate the fact that all of us, to some degree, live with things we keep secret, that we’d rather nobody knew. And what better way to do it than with this quote by the ever-brilliant David Foster Wallace.

It comes from his novel The Pale King, which I read this summer, and it nicely sums up the absurdity of the human condition. He suggests this:

The next suitable person you’re in light conversation with, you stop suddenly in the middle of the conversation and look at the person closely and say, “What’s wrong?” You say it in a concerned way. He’ll say, “What do you mean?” You say, “Something’s wrong. I can tell. What is it?” And he’ll look stunned and say, “How did you know?” He doesn’t realise something’s always wrong, with everybody. Often more than one thing. He doesn’t know everybody’s always going around all the time with something wrong and believing they’re exerting great willpower and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing’s ever wrong, from seeing it.

I love that quote and I think it’s so insightful. It’s true of me. It’s true of many people I know. And if we were to be perfectly honest with ourselves, I think we’d have to admit that it’s true of all of us. We all live lives behind facades. We think we do a good job at hiding our vulnerability from others – and a lot of the time we probably do. We invest a lot of time and money and effort into making ourselves look more sorted than we really are!

The secrets we hide will look different from person to person. But many of us will be able to identify things we work hard to keep hidden. Things we’ve done we wish we hadn’t; things we haven’t done and should have; an inability to live up to our own standards, let alone ones that a perfect God might set. We can find ourselves living under a crushing sense of guilt.

Or maybe it’s less a case of guilt and more shame. Fears, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, doubts. How many times have you caught yourself thinking “If someone knew that about me, they wouldn’t: love me, accept me, trust me, follow me…”?

We’ve become experts in mask-wearing and shame-management, and the irony is that we think we’re the only ones with anything to hide. But if Foster Wallace is right, everyone is playing the same game.

How can we break the cycle?

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