What’s wrong? A conversation starter from David Foster Wallace

I was recently reminded of this paragraph from David Foster Wallace’s novel The Pale King:

‘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 certainly true of me, 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 weaknesses from others – and a lot of the time we probably succeed. We invest a lot of time, money and effort into making ourselves look more sorted than we really are.

The secrets we hide look different from person to person. But with a moment’s reflection, many of us will be able to identify things we work hard to keep hidden. Things we’ve done which 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 a perfect divine being 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, ranging from the large to the trivial. 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.

Wouldn’t it be so much more freeing if we broke the cycle of pretence?


If you found this post helpful or thought-provoking (even if you disagreed with it!) chances are someone else you know may do too. So please take a moment to share it on social media. If you would like to support me further, please consider buying me a coffee via my ko-fi page.

Image by Steve Rhodes, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

This is an edited version of a post from 2014, which contained out of date information and links.

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