Thinking Your Life Away
Two boys stand on the cusp of manhood. Each also stands at the edge of a body of water. And each struggles intensely to make a very simple decision: Do I jump in? Or do I stay on dry land where I can observe everyone else jumping in?
Preoccupation with the choice consumes them.
One is the protagonist of David Foster Wallace’s story, “Forever Overhead.” The other is the reluctant hero of Pulitzer Prize winning Steven Millhauser’s little story, “Getting Closer.” The inner struggle these boys share vividly illustrates, among other things, the problem of all-consuming self-consciousness. These stories are in fact about the very idea.
But there are other kinds of stories that rub up against this phenomenon. Epic fantasy novels—or series of novels. A great example is Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series. It’s one of those super long, mythopoeic fantasy cycles of 10+ books detailing an elaborately conceived alternate universe. As such tales often do, Jordan’s begins with a reluctant Hero—a boy on the cusp of manhood—receiving a “call to adventure,” after which he’ll do battle with epic forces of evil, aided by epic forces for good. High Fantasy, or “sword and sorcery” fantasy are common terms for this kind of thing.
What stories like this have to do with the unique problem of excessive self-awareness I’ll get to in a moment.
In Wallace’s “Forever Overhead,” the protagonist has just turned thirteen and has decided, finally, to jump off the high board at the neighborhood swimming pool. He’s clearly thought about this for some time. And through inexhaustible interior monologue, he demonstrates the quintessential life of forever analyzing everything—a life spent thinking, consciously, on the nature of things without taking the plunge into actually interacting with them.
But this story is also about one boy recognizing the need to counterbalance the effects of such an all-consuming consciousness.
This is what goes on in his head:
You have thought it over. There is the high board. [Your family] will want to leave soon. Climb out and do the thing. . . . Forget your towel. Stopping for the towel means talking and talking means thinking. You have decided being scared is caused mostly by thinking.
The precocious young boy has started acknowledging, consciously, that something about his habit of breaking down every action, every person, every object and situation around him has rendered decision-making amidst these things extremely difficult.
The boy progresses toward the board.
You can see so well . . . Grab the iron bars tight and twist and look down behind you and you can see people buying snacks and refreshments below. You can see down into it: the clean white top of the vendor’s cap, tubs of ice cream, steaming brass freezers, scuba tanks and soft drink syrup, snakes of soda hose, bulging boxes of salty popcorn kept hot in the sun. Now that you’re overhead you can see the whole thing.
The title of this story, “Forever Overhead,” points to moments just such as this. The boy—with a sharper, more observant, more penetrating and curious mind than his average counterpart’s—is “looking down” and “into” the nature of things. But he’s looking at it all from “overhead” where he “can see the whole thing.” The problem is that he’s never figured out how to go into it. How to engage with it. He’s always standing at one remove from everything, analyzing it but never fully living in it.
When the woman in front of him jumps, the boy’s inner-struggle reaches a fever pitch as he second-guesses his second-guess about being too self-conscious. The board “throws her violently up and out.”
Listen. It does not seem good, the way she disappears into a time that passes before she sounds. Like a stone down a well. But you think she did not think so. She was part of a rhythm that excludes thinking. And now you have made yourself part of it, too. The rhythm seems blind. Like ants. Like a machine.
You decide this needs to be thought about. It may, after all, be all right to do something scary without thinking, but not when the scariness is the not thinking itself. Not when not thinking turns out to be wrong. . . . The board protrudes from shadow into light and you can’t see past the end. When it all turns out to be different you should get to think. It should be required. . . . The board is long. From where you stand it seems to stretch off into nothing. It’s going to send you someplace which its own length keeps you from seeing, which seems wrong to submit to without even thinking.
Look at it. You can see the whole complicated thing, blue and white and brown and white, soaked in a watery spangle of deepening red. Everybody. This is what people call a view. . . You see now how high overhead you are. You knew from down there no one could tell. . . . Forever below is rough deck, snacks, thin metal music, down where you once used to be . . . and the water, of course, is only soft when you’re inside it. . . . You have been taken off guard. . . . Did you ever think it over. Yes and no.
He recognizes that he needs to take some action, action that must, at some point, push aside the never-ending analysis of everything around him. Perhaps—Wallace seems to be saying—there are points at which there is no room for both, points at which either analytical reflection or action that trusts in something other than the self must be chosen.
Before the boy steps toward the end of the board, he notices a bee buzzing over his mom’s soda “down below.” The bee can’t get into the can, but it knows a veritable ocean of sugar sits down inside it. If it could just get in somehow. This image captures the boy’s quandary perfectly: “A still, floating bee is moving faster than it can think. From overhead the sweetness drives it crazy.”
The boy eventually jumps, pressured by all those behind him, “disappearing”—as he thinks of it—into all that’s “down there.” But you get the sense that jumping “into” things will always entail this kind of struggle for him.
In Steven Millhauser’s “Getting Closer,” the young protagonist is at a picnic by the river with his family. He realizes that once he jumps into the water, the day will officially begin. “That’s the agreement he’s made with himself.” Thus, the day will also start to end. So he puts it off, soaking in all the details.
He takes a few steps to the edge of the drop, the edge of the world. Behind him’s Grandma in her chair, the floor of pine needles, the picnic table. Behind that, the sunny blanket, a field—but why stop there? Connecticut’s stretching away at his back, the monkey cage in Beardsley Park Zoo, the Merritt Parkway with its stone bridges, then comes Grandma’s apartment on West 110th Street, and, if you keep going, the Mississippi River, Pikes Peak, California. . . . He likes standing here, thinking these things. He likes the picture of himself in his own mind as he stares out sternly over the river.
But while he does this, he also becomes aware of the “ending” nature of everything temporal, extending all the way to human life itself. “He knows it’s time to get started. You can’t delay things forever,” he thinks. But then his moment of self-conscious paralysis beings:
At the water’s edge he stops. . . . He’s been moving toward the moment that’s about to happen ever since he woke up this morning, ever since last week, when his father came home from work and . . . said they’d be going to Indian Cove on Saturday . . . but here on the edge of the river he doesn’t want to let the waiting go. . . He sees it now, he sees it: ending is everywhere. . . . Under the shining skin of the world, everything’s dead and gone. The sun is setting. The day is dying. Grandma’s lying in her coffin. . . . His pretty mother’s growing old . . . No one can stop it. Julia’s dying, his father’s dying. . . His body’s shaking, he can’t breathe, here at the water’s edge he’s at the end of everything. You can’t live unless there’s a way to hold on to things.
Millhauser’s story, similar to Wallace’s, is partly about “letting go” of things enough to actually do something with them. About living, rather than perpetually thinking about living.
Does all this suggest the end of reflection as an important activity? Certainly not. This blog post itself is taking part in that very thing—and I would hope to some valuable end. But like all good things, reflection can be overindulged in to the point of consuming the person it’s supposed to serve.
So where does epic fantasy come into this?
It seems that it too has something to say about the paralyzing fear induced by an inward-spiraling mind. Not by drawing our attention to the problem. But—going a step further—by actually counteracting the problem.
In Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World—the first book in his Wheel of Time series—the protagonist, Rand al’Thor (also a boy on the edge of manhood), exhibits the same qualities of uncertainty as those other two protagonists—if not quite so dramatically. But one major thing is different. While he is aware of his own struggle to act and not just to think about acting, the story he’s in is not about the struggle itself. The first two stories are at least partly about the crippling effects of hyper self-consciousness, but Jordan’s story simply shows a young character struggling through it. And not just that. It shows the young hero struggling through this problem in the colossal context of a universe that’s orders of magnitude bigger than him.
These kinds of stories are uniquely equipped to actually function as antidotes to the problem those other stories point out.
Consider Job for a moment, an “upright” man in the sight of God, who suffers intensely, but whose story shows him suffering in a context much larger than himself. When he undergoes horrific and agonizing losses that make no sense to him, he challenges God to explain. God’s response, interestingly, is to give Job perspective. God doesn’t merely start in on a philosophical explanation for why bad things happen to good people. Instead, he lays out for Job the sweeping tapestry of a cosmic story in which he is only a tiny part.
That’s what stories like Jordan’s Wheel of Time series do for us. They remind us of the kind of grand-scale narrative we’re all caught up in. They remind us that it’s not all about us. That we’re supporting players in The Protagonist’s story. And yet, they don’t strip us of our dignity in the process. We, like Rand al’Thor, like Job, like David, like the widow who gave her only two coins at the temple offering, like all the people we see God weaving into the grand narrative of History, each have a singularly significant role to play. Each of us is there in the tale for a reason. No good storyteller includes characters he doesn’t need—or at least deeply want—to fulfill his creative vision.
By looking at these stories, by simply seeing the vastness of the tapestry we’ve been woven into, we’re given the freedom to both extricate ourselves from the inward spiraling trap of self-consciousness and to know, at the same time, that we’re important. We’re essential. The storyteller has put us here on purpose. We are essential. We realize then too that what we do is essential, filled with dignity, however bland or uneventful it may seem. Armed with such a perspective, we may look up to find ourselves both comforted and exhorted. We’re caught up in a much larger tale than the ones we weave in our own anxiety-riddled, incessantly self-conscious minds—like gushing faucets that just won’t turn off no matter how hard we twist.
Garret Johnson teaches creative writing at the University of Houston-Downtown, Houston Baptist University, and elsewhere. Aside from being a longtime devotee of theological and philosophical study, and of the works of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston and is currently touching up his first novel.