There’s a saying about being in a room that’s so small you have to step outside to change your mind.
That old saw pretty much sums up the theme of the speech, This is Water, that David Foster Wallace gave to the graduating class of 2005 at Kenyon College. I highly recommend reading it, or even better, listening to it on YouTube. Early in the speech, Wallace makes this statement, “A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded.”
We all kid ourselves, and we’re kidding ourselves a lot if we can’t admit it. We exist in individual worlds of our own construction. Our water, to quote Wallace. The physics of our worlds—the paradigms and underlying assumptions by which they work—usually have their roots in our interpretation of the things that have happened to us, or that we’ve seen happen to other people. This makes for an existence that’s so subjective the only way to validate it is by finding agreement among other people who see the world the same way. In other words, groupthink.
When you take groupthink to its extreme, you have a cult. We know about cults; we’ve seen them in the news. Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians, the list goes on and on. Cults don’t end well. Several well-done documentaries recently reminded us of the terrible journey to death taken by David Koresh and seventy-eight of his disciples twenty-five years ago. Of course, that number of victims pales in comparison to the more than nine hundred men, women, and children who drank the Kool-aid at Jonestown forty years ago. These events leave us asking ourselves over and over again how ordinary people can become so delusional that they invest their own lives, the lives of their loved ones, and even the lives of their children in a lie.
Groupthink doesn’t always result in a cult, but it does always result in worldbuilding. We have a lot of worldbuilding in America right now, mostly propagated by social media and other media. Americans seem to be polarized into groups who are campaigning against this or against that, against him or against her, and a lot of individual, rational thinking can get lost in the shuffle.
It’s okay to build a world if you’re a gamer or a novelist, but it really isn’t cool if you’re a political or spiritual leader. Those two realms, politics and religion, seem especially susceptibility to worldbuilding. In fact, religion is so susceptible to twisting itself around a lie that James, a very practical leader among first-generation Christians, had this to say about it, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” That’s a short leash to keep our religion on, but reining in religion is always a good idea.
Many people who aren’t Christians see Christians as the poster children for groupthink and worldbuilding. That’s ironic because there’s a story about that very thing in Matthew’s account of Jesus.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
There are a few interpretations of this exchange between Jesus and his disciples, but I believe Jesus meant just what he said, that he’d build his church with people who believe that he is the Christ. Let’s face it, despite the theory that Peter was an ecclesiastical cornerstone, the fact remains that Christians are Christians because they believe Jesus is the Christ. And they don’t believe it because a bunch of other people do. They believe because God himself showed each one of them, individually, that Jesus is the Christ, the savior of the entire world.
I really love that David Foster Wallace gave that speech. I return to it from time to time as a reminder examine myself for blind spots. “Keep your heart with all vigilance,” the Bible instructs, “for from it flow the springs of life.”
Of course, it’s almost impossible to find those blind spots on my own because I’m, you know, blind to them. Truman Capote included an epigraph in his first novel, a quote from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” Not me, that’s for sure. But there’s another quote from Jeremiah, in which he speaks for God himself, saying, “I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”
I’m happy to open my heart to God. It’s a little too dark and disappointing in there for me to explore it on my own. Besides, God is the original worldbuilder, and his worlds are so much bigger than mine.