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What Catholic Mass, David Foster Wallace and narrative theory have taught me about purpose
(VERONICA CRUZ/The Stanford Daily)

What Catholic Mass, David Foster Wallace and narrative theory have taught me about purpose

About halfway through fall quarter, I found myself knee-deep in boredom and the occasional bouts of solitude and anxiety that seem to trouble many freshmen. So I decided to call my older sister. After transferring schools in her sophomore year, she is graduating from college in May, now a super senior. Put simply, she’s a veteran of college life and thus a sage advisor. I told her what was on my mind, and she said that she felt similarly in her first year away from home and, in fact, still does sometimes. She told me that one thing that helped was going to church. In her case, this was an off-campus Catholic congregation a friend of hers frequented.

My family is not particularly religious, and we’ve never been regular churchgoers. In fact, I had always frowned at the prospect of going to Mass and never saw how it could add any value to my life. But the following Sunday night, I found myself biking to MemChu for 10 p.m. Mass, accompanied by two friends who, like me, were more curious than they were religious.

Little did I know how much I’d like it. In “Religion as a metaphor for non-believers,” published in November, Avery Rogers wrote about attending church as a “non-believer.” My experiences and beliefs are closely aligned with hers, so it would be redundant for me to recount my impressions. Yet the second Mass that I attended at MemChu stood out, and it’s something that I think about to this day. Among my fall quarter memories, it floats to the top.

The highways in Hawaii are speckled with red, white and blue interstate signs. But where are they going? What state could those highways be connecting to? You can’t cross to another island on one of the interstates, let alone to a continental state.”

Father Xavier began the sermon with this curious observation. The interstates (inter- coming from the Latin for between or across) in Hawaii, of course, never leave the state; they are disconnected carvings in volcanic islands that sit alone in the Pacific. After a pause, he repeated a few times, “We are always in the same state!” His voice reverberated across the cavernous nave of the church.

He went on to describe the Christian fixation with the second coming of Jesus Christ and urged us to beware of it. He encouraged us to focus on looking for Jesus in everything around us, instead of succumbing to this obsession with his return.

Our mindset, Father Xavier said, dictates whether we see Jesus, or beauty, in things, whether we make the mundane ordinary or extraordinary. There are, of course, barriers to this. Modern-day existence is busy, and individuals on campus and beyond face a wide range of challenges that can make it difficult to always navigate life with a tinkling smile and sunny disposition. But while the gravity and nature of our problems are unique, the relativity of such problems within the isolated life of each of us is universal. Given that, each person has the power to alter their mindset to cope with these challenges in productive ways, to reassign power to each object, person or issue in their life.

Perhaps this is particularly important because our state, in reality, tends to change only negligibly because our problems can seem so persistent, so omnipresent. In other words, our conditions are unlikely to change dramatically even over the course of a lifetime and especially in the near future. And even if they do, disguised permutations of the same universal human problems will follow us. So — to extend Father Xavier’s analogy — if we’re never leaving Hawaii anyway, we might as well learn to avail ourselves of it and learn to appreciate it.

According to Father Xavier, the key to this process lies in alertness. Passivity and monotony are our default states. He compelled us to be aware of our surroundings and to always search for beauty therein instead of falling into the trap of moving through our day-to-day on autopilot.

During this sermon, I was immediately reminded of David Foster Wallace’s commencement address to the Kenyon College class of 2005, “This is Water,” which has become one of my guiding texts since I was exposed to it early in high school. In his address, Wallace illuminates the reality of life post-college: bumper-to-bumper traffic, evening trips to crowded grocery stores, constant fatigue. In casual, unassuming and honest language, he explains that given this reality, it is up to us to construct a life of meaning.

The waiting, the commuting, the busywork we have to do — they give us time to think. We can choose to think about miserable things, and mope about our jobs, and dwell on a small altercation. It’s easy to feel like everything is in our way specifically and that the world around us is conspiring against us in times of strife or tedium. This mentality can overwhelm us.

But we can also choose to look at the loud kids and the slow cashier and everyone else around us with sympathy. Once we do this, we can more easily extract beauty from the events in our immediate life and periphery. Again, it’s about the mindset that Father Xavier described — one that seeks to identify something greater or kinder in the mundane. To be specific, this might entail recognizing the vibrancy and brilliance of our peers more often or taking an extra second to notice the intentional, beautiful design of our campus during high-speed bike rides when we’re late to class.

I came to see connections to Father Xavier’s words that extended even further beyond the walls of MemChu and David Foster Wallace’s speech. I soon realized that the core of his recommendation — his recipe for a meaningful life — has been professed by many people in different forms.

This quarter, I’m enrolled in “My American Life,” a small class dedicated to the production of podcasts. Recently, we read the first chapter of Jack Hart’s “Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction.” Hart describes the universality of the “elements of story” and the importance of learning how to look for the potential for stories around us.

In another one of our recent readings, “Telling True Stories,” Nora Ephron says, “We create stories by imposing narrative on the events that happen around us.” In other words, the seedlings of powerful stories abound, in daily activities and random goings-on, yet it is up to us to identify those seedlings and cultivate them from there on. We have to create the stories that are waiting to sprout. Although I am primarily concerned with learning about narrative theory for the purpose of creating more engaging, meaningful content in my podcast class and elsewhere, I can’t deny the broader implications of these principles and their connection to Father Xavier’s and David Foster Wallace’s words.

The widespread presence of such principles — in Catholic Mass, in “This is Water,” in narrative theory — seems to speak to their importance. Yet when we are juggling long p-sets and elaborate projects and romantic rejection and late-night study sessions and familial tension, it can be hard to retain the message of positivity and perspective championed by an energetic priest and a late author and a type of literary scholarship.

In a fast-paced world, it is convenient to default to passivity and cease to truly engage with the people and events around us. Similarly, it is easy to allocate undue importance to malicious individuals, unfortunate events and academic pressure. When faced with all this noise, I like to remind myself that there’s a heavy element of choice in constructing my narrative, and that to do nothing, to go on autopilot, is, in itself, a choice.

 

Contact Lucas Hornsby at lhornsby ‘at’ stanford.edu.