Flavors of Localism

This post, apropos of nothing, attempts to define different strains of thought that fall under the banner of localism. The first two are what we might call intentional forms of localism, followed by two that are cultural and identity-based, followed by two that are generally the province of local elites.

These categories necessarily overlap, and many localists will have aspects of several. There are, however, distinct motivations that underpin each group, which is why I felt the compunction to categorize them. It’s also worth noting that relatively few people think of themselves as localists above all else; it’s often a secondary feature of one of these more pronounced, if fluid, identities. They are all united, however, by an emphasis on action tied to geography or a social network within one’s immediate sphere. To that end, here are the six varieties.

  1. Crunchy Localism

This category is one of the most straightforward, and may be the one that comes most immediately to mind for casual observers: the co-op shoppers and CSA members and backyard chicken-raisers; the vegetarians or devotees of free-range meat; the local craftspeople who try, to varying degrees, to escape box store shopping and big business in general. Their most fundamental concern is typically a desire to protect our planet, meaning crunchy localism is usually associated with the political left, and it’s somewhat unusual in that its localist platform tends to fit fairly coherently with its national platform. That said, it also contains plenty of people who distrust big things in general (both business and government) and can accommodate some more libertine or religious strains of thought.

Strengths: Crunchy localists are acutely aware of threats to the planet and work hard to counter them. They align their consumption with their belief system and generally try to live within their means. This mindset emphasizes genuine quality of food, of locally made goods, and cultivates a homey, sustainable ethos unafraid of a little dirt. It’s also less prone to excess than some other movements; ecoterrorism isn’t exactly a widespread phenomenon.

Weaknesses: This way of thinking has a tendency to attract some doomsayers, and some of its mid-20th-century antecedents were very wrong about, say, the threat of overpopulation or peak oil or other such concerns. There’s also an occasional problem of scale, as shown when people seek to prevent a certain activity in a developed country only to see it farmed out to poorer locales with no labor standards or environmental safeguards, or those who proclaim climate change is the greatest issue facing the nation and then proceed to spend all their time working to ban plastic straws. Such causes are noble, but rather misses the gravity of the problem: is this really where we want to draw out battle lines? Like any movement with an ideology at the root, it runs the risk of collapsing into infighting.

2. Religious Localism

Like crunchy localism, this brand involves the creation of intentional local communities around shared beliefs, and as noted above, some of its adherents are also pretty environmentally conscious. Adherents to this brand, however, aspire not to some earthly realm of unity, but to a community that gives them access to God or some other higher being or state. Groups come together to share in their traditions, whether through a traditional school or an active community of worship or a cloistered retreat or even the occasional compound. While many major religious faiths have an evangelistic or crusading side that strives to bring the whole world along, most also have a tradition in this vein; whether out of deep commitment to a simple and contemplative life or a sense that the world is to depraved to be redeemed, these localists believe they must first and foremost tend to their own garden.

Strengths: Builds a coherent worldview for believers, and few versions create such strong networks of believers: united not only by a shared vision for this world but of eternity, these people can be very loyal to one another. Some communities, like the Amish or the Mormons or subsets of Buddhism and Islam, have remarkable staying power.

Weaknesses: It can be suffocating to those who don’t fully share the view, or even those who begin to question it some; no version of localism demands more of anyone who would wish to join it. At its most extreme, it can drift into cult creation and all its attendant problems. Of all the versions it is also probably most susceptible to reliance on charismatic individuals, who can either use their power over their flock for questionable ends or just see their communities crumble when they fall out of the picture somehow.

3. Traditionalist Localism

In striking juxtaposition to the crunchy localists we find the traditionalist localists: people who just like things the way they are. They tend to be members of a place’s dominant culture, and they don’t see what all the fuss is about messing with it. They’re prone to nostalgia and may be diligent local historians, carrying on small-town festivals and small civic organizations, and they generally don’t get why anyone would want things to be some other way. There’s some overlap here with religious localism, though the motivation, I would argue, is distinct. The traditionalists’ primary concern is not transcendence or their immortal souls; it is just stability. In this category we find a lot of straightforward small-town folk, though when their mindset starts to coalesce into a political movement it can take on a decidedly different flavor: here we find the Brexiters and the French National Rally, and also the flyers of the Don’t Tread on Me flags and that dude in the hut with a shotgun at the end of the road.

Strengths: It’s simple, and the narrative is consistent and requires little thought. It treads on some of the most basic loyalties and asks little else, and as a result can be a powerful motivator. It has proven it can be a fairly successful political movement, and it can also give some unique life and sustenance to longstanding local quirks and traditions.

Weaknesses: Anyone who doesn’t conform to the traditions of the locality will feel stifled by this culture, and it doesn’t much like people aspiring to much beyond it. This brand of localism can drift into jingoism and violence when threatened. It can also descend into painful defenses of old things that don’t deserve defense, lapsing back to some long-lost era and choosing some strange lines in the stand. These can include major corporate brands or some mysterious “way of life” that is an often limited snapshot of a very specific era, at which point it really ceases to be local at all, and instead just becomes reactionary. Its excesses, taken to their most extreme form, are among the worst of any form of localism.

4. Subaltern Localism

This localism features the breakaway movements composed of groups left out of a dominant culture and their fellow travelers. Here we find the indigenous rights groups, the Black nationalists, the tightly-bound ethnic neighborhoods of major cities, and even things like culturally specific charter schools. These are groups of people who are usually excluded, either explicitly or surreptitiously, from the levers of power in a society, and they seek radical measures to create their own spaces where their voices and traditions have a home. While some in these movements may seek to overthrow the existing order, either through nonviolent reform or violent revolution, the localists in this camp, much like the religious groups, are either so jaded by the broader culture or so enraptured by their local work that they don’t spend much time on that level.

Strengths: These local movements are often very empowering for their members. Some of these can build very dense mutual aid networks that can substitute for the failures of a state that does not or cannot do much for a marginalized group. As much as any of the localisms, this one generates some impressive cultural work, both through a flowering of new creative outbursts or through the resurrection of historic figures within the culture or tradition. The memories it unearths can fundamentally upend the way we tell local histories.

Weaknesses: By its very nature, this localism is at risk of being crushed by the dominant culture if it questions the existing order too much; as a result, it can turn to violence and get caught up in some of its related excesses. It also faces some practical questions over how exactly it fits in to a pluralist society. How much space is enough space, and if it involves the formal drawing of boundaries, who else gets roped in with this group?  Does it run the risk of simply re-creating segregation? These groups are also not monoliths, and can be prone to infighting between sub-groups or idealists with competing visions. (It is also the hardest to name, given the alphabet soup of academic terminology for non-dominant cultures facing social exclusion; in this case, I tried to go to the pithiest origins of the general concept, which we owe to Antonio Gramsci.)

5. Civic Greatness Localism

This localism trades on people’s pride in the pride in their homes. It wants to see a local place made great through major civic projects, economic growth, and the development of good publicity. It usually emerges from genuine love for the place and on the surface is one of the least objectionable and most expansive: who doesn’t want their city to look good and have fun things? Civic greatness usually strives to be apolitical, though it can’t always avoid such situations. Its exponents include the local visitor’s bureau and the chamber of commerce, along with many local politicians who do not have any national ambitions. Its members are usually, though not always, members of a place’s dominant culture, and while they can generate mass followings based on the composition of the local population, this is typically an elite-led form of localism.

Strengths: This instinct produces monumental local projects that often come to define cities in the eyes of their residents. It rewards visionaries and unites people behind a vision, and it promotes a positive narrative about the locality. People usually feel good to be behind its efforts. It can take the best of the traditionalist view and put it to good use, and also draws on any of the others if they help feed the narrative.

Weaknesses: As an elite-led movement, this one may not necessarily be very participatory (hey there, Robert Moses). Sometimes its leaders are more into their own projects (or profits, or political futures) than they are into communities. A vague chase of greatness may also lead a place to assume all investment is good, and pursue projects that displace people or have major environmental concerns or undermine actual local businesses as it seeks to bring in non-local money. Because it rather innocently declares that it’s simply out to support a city, its downsides can often be surreptitious, and may not emerge until it’s too late.

6. Liberal Localism

Members of this final category are comfortable with local pluralism and nuance, and cultivate an intense appreciation for their heterodox locales. They thereby escape the traps of the monocultural traditionalists, and while they often share the general goals of the civic greatness localists, they are also willing to be critical and tell the whole history of a place, warts and all. The founders of the urban planning field, from Louis Mumford to Jane Jacobs, reside somewhere in here, as do community development corporations and other organizations that seek to attract plural voices behind a local vision. It has, on rare occasions, been able to rise to something approximating a heterodox national movement: Robert F. Kennedy was a champion before he was gunned down, and a certain brand of British Toryism has done some dabbling here recently. Barack Obama had roots in this world, but did not really govern as a localist.

Strengths: With apologies to some brilliant figures in religious and subaltern localism, this version has the greatest intellectual power behind it. Its appreciation of complexity allows it to see things that other views do not, and its sympathetic but not uncritical view of humanity allows it to both learn from the past and aspire to something better in the future. It pairs a deep diagnosis of local ills with modest but achievable local action plans, and it can point to plenty of concrete projects that its adherent organizations have gotten off the ground. In theory, it can find common ground with any of the other visions.

Weaknesses: This is generally an elite position limited to people with a lot of education (formal or informal) and local passion; it can also lapse into a tendency toward observation and appreciation instead of direct action. While sympathetic to other left-leaning localisms like the subaltern and crunchy flavors, it likely won’t move at the pace that the adherents of those worldviews desire, while the more conservative localisms will be skeptical of its willingness to include many voices. It can sound pretty in theory but be wickedly difficult to deliver in practice.

A Wave of Purity

Thanksgiving morning finds Evan driving alone up the shore of Lake Superior; alone, save for the urn of ashes riding shotgun. He’s had his license for three weeks now, and every acceleration in his mom’s old car still feels like a new burst of freedom, one mile closer to some reunion with an unseen destiny. Not that he can drive without some anxiety. His nerves rise when he crosses the patches where the road, coated by spray from this November gale, glistens in the car’s headlights. This all still has the feeling of a forbidden pleasure, one of which his dad at his best would have no doubt approved. Those moments were rare toward the end, and as depression consumed and defeated Evan’s once vibrant guide. For now, though, he can choose what he remembers of the man whose ashes ride along at his side. His old man will inspire him. The rush only grows as he swings on to a puddle-strewn gravel road out toward a point some ways north of town.

He didn’t want to spend this holiday with his mother’s family, not after what they’d said about his dad at Thanksgiving a year ago. He is too loyal to his father to blame him for leaving him behind, and the inundation of pity from the extended family was too much to endure. The visit over the summer had been even worse: didn’t his mother think Evan was letting himself go, they’d asked. He needed a haircut, he was far too young for that dating app, and he could probably use some friends who got him back in touch with that artistic side he’d used to show. This is what she got for letting her late husband turn him into a jock instead of making sure he followed in his cousins’ footsteps to choir and cello scholarships.

His mother, to her credit, stood up for his freedom to live as he pleased. She understood the adolescent impulses at play when he said he’d rather stay home for Thanksgiving, enjoy some personal time and feast with an accommodating friend’s family later in the day. He feels vaguely treacherous as he surveys the shoreline here, in full betrayal of her faith in his good decision-making. But somehow, he knows he’ll have no trouble drowning the guilt.

The stormwaters hammer away at a rocky beach. A few gawkers are on hand to admire the swells, but Evan makes sure to park as far from anyone as he can. He stops to admire himself in the mirror: yes, all this effort he’s put in to make himself look good over the past year has paid off. He smiles at himself, then reaches beneath the surfboard jutting through the middle of the car and fishes out the wetsuit at the foot of the passenger’s seat. It will be tight on him; he’s grown a few inches since he got it for Christmas two years ago. But he forces his way into it, an unwieldy dance between himself and Neoprene and the steering wheel at his knees. He’s in no rush, takes measured pride in his efforts. Every move is steady, deliberate, dripping with certainty. As it should be.

He pops the trunk and throws open his door only to have the wind nearly blow it shut in his face. He struggles out into the elements, makes his way to the back of the car, and scans the road: no, no one can see him. He pulls out the board, fights the wind as he closes the trunk, and picks out a path down to the rocks. A heat wave the previous week melted all the snow, but thin layers of ice carried in by the lake force him to fixate on each small step down to the shore. He’s seen big waves before, knows the danger they bring. But the steely grey sky and the bone-chilling cold reveal a malice he’d never known in the Great Lake before. If he picks the wrong waves, he’s most certainly dead.

Evan is not a veteran surfer. His résumé is limited to a series of vacations on the California coast, all of which started with noble intentions of conquering waves that swiftly dried out when his mediocre swimming skills ran up against the endless need to paddle outward. His mother dissuaded him at every chance she got, but his dad was always the trusting soul who knew his otherwise religiously risk-averse son ought to catch a wave when it rose up before him. As far as his mother knows, the surfboard is still gathering dust in the basement, a forgotten relic of happier days when they’d escape to San Onofre for spring break. But he’s put in his time to plan for this day. He’s researched this shoal meticulously, made three drives out this fall when he only had his permit, the closest thing his mother’s little saint has ever come to rule-breaking (whatever his worrying aunt may say). He chose each of those visits to survey the waves in prime conditions, to watch a couple of locals in action. But on none of those occasions had the winds approached this vicious pummeling power. His knees are quaking as he stares out at the roiling waters, his tremors in no way related to the cold.

His face clenches up into a grimace. If he can’t deliver now, when will he ever? Evan fixes the tether to his leg and marches out into the surf, lets the first wave break around him, gains some confidence that those that follow won’t bowl him over. He shuffles his way past the dashing rocks and then launches himself in, struggling to paddle out through the vicious breakers and toward a takeoff point that looms on the horizon. He labors intently, thankful for those long hours in the gym of late, his arms now just powerful enough to pull him out into the open lake.

The rest of the world ceases to exist. Evan, alone amid his unrelenting swells, all life reduced to himself and these crashing monsters that have swamped vessels sixty times the length of his little board. His mother, his father, his friends, his family: they all are gone now. His mind has no choice but to lock in on his singular purpose. He exhales, shuffles his body forward on the board, waits for a set that will suit him. He lets two passable swells roll by before he musters up the courage to clamber to his feet.

He lasts all of three seconds. He topples, battles back his panic to a level he can more or less manage. The waves come so much faster here than on the ocean, a relentless barrage of punches that land blow after blow. His mouthful of water may not be salty, but it chills him to the bone. He struggles back on to his board and forces himself back out, determined to ride one in with some measure of competence. His arms groan amid this unrelenting slog, though they’re afterthoughts compared to the protests in that ever-so-rational corner of his mind. A sudden howl of wind has the waves rising up as high as eighteen feet: true monsters of the lake, enough to challenge even the experts. He shouldn’t be here, yet here he is. He climbs to his feet for a second time, but the wave fells him immediately. Eternal seconds pass as he flounders in hapless misery. His ice bath plunges him into the depths of his fears, a cold, dark terror that instills a new wish for life within. He wrestles his way back on to the board and pushes back outward, ever outward.

Evan struggles out four more times, each effort deadening his queasy stomach. Fear becomes routine. He never lasts upright more than four seconds. This is far beyond his pay grade, far beyond a couple of halfhearted lessons from some stoned-out beach bums at Laguna Beach. Did they ever tempt death in the way he now does? If they did, they never said as much. Not that he’d blame them. This urge isn’t something he could explain, either.

The next wave has a different feel to him. It catches his eyes with a mysterious greenish tinge, something that marks it as different from the rest. This one, he knows, is the one. Eyes wide with delight, Evan surges with strength, picks out his line, and shoots down the tunnel in full control. He pulls back and rides the crest, and for the first time in his life nails a turn. He cruises the length of the wave for another five seconds before he crumples down to the surface of his board. He flounders, then resurfaces, pitching violently as the waves carry him in. His eyes are swimming, though not just from the spray: triumph and loss overwhelm him at once, sudden oneness with a sheer awesome force capable of destroying him. He’s done what he set out to do.

His moment of victory makes him complacent. The waves carry him in to toward a vicious reef, and he’s reduced to another sloppy and fearful paddle back to safer waters. For a fleeting second he imagines he can repeat that triumphant ride. No, no, he immediately tells himself: to even try would be to tempt a fate he does not dare imagine. This is enough.

By the time he coasts back into shore he has a small audience bending in the breeze to watch him. An older couple eyes him with worry and awe, and a mother with three preteen boys shepherds her flock away when she realizes this phantom emerging from the waves can’t be out of high school. She doesn’t want them getting any ideas. The old man politely applauds his performance, and Evan’s taught nerves burst into a wicked grin.

“You seem awful young,” offers his wife.

A cocky voice that Evan does not know responds for him. “Age doesn’t matter if you can ride like that.”

“No fear here!” the old man wheezes.

Evan shuts down his defensive impulse and chooses the right words. “Nah. It’s all fear, all the time. But that’s what makes it worth it.”

He smiles and picks his way back along the beach to the car, where he stashes away the surfboard and turns to face the wind. He lingers a few minutes, puts on a show of paying his respects to the beast he’s conquered. Once the couple has turned its backs on him, he collapses into the driver’s seat, hyperventilating as he cranks the car’s heat as high as it will go. He peels off the wetsuit, pulls back his hair, and closes his eyes so he can kill the terror and sear the triumph into his memory. That’s the only record of his ride: no pictures, no videos, no hurried accounts dashed off to friends. No one will ever need to know save himself.

He pats the urn next to him, feels a swell of something within, some god or primeval force surging through every thundering beat of his heart. In this moment Evan believes as much as he ever has, knows he must continue to find this force that pulses through him in these rare pinnacles of raw reality. What this belief entails or asks of him he’s not entirely sure, but that does nothing to diminish his certainty.

He knows he’s not alone in seeking it. The potheads try to tell him he can achieve this state with a few quick hits, but that seems like a cheap and safe shortcut; an escape, not a deliberate rush to the brink of fate. A friend who’s smoother with girls says sex is much the same; this, Evan can probably buy, the wonder of losing oneself in another in a rush of sensual ecstasy. He really should find himself a girlfriend so he can compare notes. But this? This is just him alone, or him made one with everything, most importantly that thing in the seat next to him that he can’t have back.

He pulls out his phone to call the friend who’s hosting him for dinner, his hands still trembling as he finds the number.

“Hey Evs,” the friend says, surprised by the call.

“Yeah. Listen, I’ll be a little late, just gotta…” he trails off, omits the details on how must head home to dry himself and replace the urn where it belongs.

“You okay?”

“I’m…” Evan pauses and returns his gaze to the waves. “I’m where I need to be.”

Here is the next piece in this series.

Raising the Staff: Duluth City Council Notes, 7/15/13

The Duluth City Council was in a chipper mood on Monday night, and not without good reason. Mayor Don Ness informed the Council that the city had won a Local Government of the Year award within the state of Minnesota, and Councilor Krug was “just as happy as can be” to announce that the city’s anti-synthetic drug ordinance is now officially on the books. It went into effect last Thursday, a restraining order against the city sought by synthetic drug seller Jim Carlson was rejected by a judge earlier in the day, and police report that service calls are already down by one third in the area surrounding Mr. Carlson’s business. (No one bothered to mention that one of these calls was related to an assault upon Mr. Carlson himself, at the hands of a deranged customer.)

The city council chamber was quite full for the meeting; though it only lasted an hour and did not involve a single vote that was not unanimous, many speakers made their way to the podium. Councilors Krause and Larson were missing in action, and most of the Council was in a summery mood and wore white, though Councilor Fosle, as always, wore black.

The first group of speakers to come forward took a stand on the issue of a Native American eagle staff that was planted in front of City Hall in 2011. The city recently claimed it was an unauthorized memorial that did not belong on city property, and ordered its removal. The city’s Native American community was none too fond of this decision. Ricky DeFoe, the Chair of the Duluth Indigenous Commission, railed against the “white hegemony” that was “fatal to itself, morally and spiritually,” and to the “world as a whole.” He explained that the eagle staff is a “spatial-iconic metaphor” that connected the people to land, space, and place, and juxtaposed it against other city monuments that celebrate European figures, such as the Angel of Hope and a statue of Leif Erickson, a Viking explorer who never came within a thousand miles of Duluth whom Duluth likes to celebrate anyway. The removal of the staff, he continued, amounted to “systemic racism,” and he claimed that his attempts to get a hearing in front of the council have been ignored.

Three speakers followed Mr. DeFoe and expressed similar sentiments. Mr. Gabriel Peltier greeted the council in Anishinaabe, framed the staff as a civil rights issue, and requested a conversation in good faith. Both he and the next speaker, Ms. Rebecca Domagala of the Human Rights Commission, likened the staff to a flag in its symbolic power. Mr. Allen Richardson, the final speaker, claimed the city “failed to use basic listening skills” and pointed out that Duluth was founded on land that, according to U.S. law at the time, should have been preserved as a reservation. Mr. Richardson closed by blasting the “silence of indifference” to Native American affairs common in the city.

As there was no official business involving the eagle staff before the Council, the Councilors could not respond until the end of the meeting, when most of the Native Americans and their supporters had already left the hall. Councilor Gardner, though at pains to make it clear she wanted to find a constructive resolution to the issue, did voice a pair of concerns. First, she disputed the notion that the city had ignored the Indigenous Commission, and said neither she nor Councilor Hartman had been approached for a meeting while serving as Council President. Second, while she admitted the staff was more subtle than a simple religious sign, she also reminded her colleagues of an explosive controversy surrounding the presence of a Ten Commandments monument on city property some years back. The Council, she suggested, would be wise to hold its previous line on issues of church-state separation. Councilors Julsrud and Boyle expressed hope for eventually “finding peace” on the issue, and Councilor Fosle, while not entirely clear in his comments, seemed to be disappointed the Native American groups had not been content with the offer to place the staff on Spirit Mountain, a site of religious significance to the Ojibwe in Duluth.

Several other speakers came forward before the meeting continued. There was a second plea in as many meetings to enforce the city’s fireworks ordinance; one man complained about zoning and planning issues around an office tower planned for downtown Duluth; a man expressed worry about a derelict property alongside his house; and a representative of the Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory clarified his group’s stance on possible development beneath the bird-watching area on the city’s east side.

After that, the Council cruised through most of its official agenda, the most significant action taken being the return of the long-tabled Pastoret Terrace project to the administration by a unanimous vote. Councilor Gardner explained that, after a meeting with the developer, the backers of the project decided not to pursue city-approved grant funding, but will instead move forward seeking other sources of funding for mixed-income and low-income housing at the site of the old Kozy Bar.

One last issue brought forth significant public input, as four citizens spoke on a pair of opposing resolutions; one which would make lower Piedmont Avenue an official truck route to receive state funding, and one to ban trucks from the same roadway. The speakers, all of whom live along Piedmont Avenue, begged the council to get rid of the trucks, which have drastically lowered the quality of life along that street as they go through countless shift points on their way up toward the mall. The trucks have “decimated” the neighborhood, with as many as sixty an hour climbing up what was supposed to be a residential street, causing excessive noise and vibrating one man’s deck away from his house. The Councilors rallied to their cause, with Councilor Fosle congratulating whoever had written the resolution for making exceptions for oversized windmill trucks that cannot use an alternate route. The truck ban passed, 7-0, rendering the second resolution academic.

In the closing comments unrelated to the eagle staff and synthetic drugs, the Councilors focused primarily on a street repair timeline. Council President Boyle introduced the timeline and suggested another open session for input was in order, while Councilor Fosle made it clear he opposed the process. Councilor Stauber had other issues with the timeline, which he and Council President Boyle appeared to resolve after a brief back-and-forth. Councilor Fosle expressed some incredulity over taxes levied on the sale of old bricks torn out of the recently repaved Superior Street, and Mayor Ness promised to look into the matter. Councilor Hartman wrapped things up by reminding the public that the filing deadline for the 2013 city elections is tomorrow, and the Council then adjourned to its three-week summer recess. 

This Is Water

The Georgetown University Class of 2013 is currently being rained upon on Healy Lawn, listening to a series of commencement speakers who are about to release them into the world after college. This means I’m one year removed from my own graduation, so it seems like a fitting time to reflect on the greatest commencement speech I’ve ever read: David Foster Wallace’s 2005 address at Kenyon College. I’m hardly alone in lauding this one—this partial video of it went viral recently—but I’m not terribly snobbish about this sort of thing, and I suppose it isn’t surprising that people who actually care about commencement addresses often value the same thing.

Here’s a transcript of the full text:

http://moreintelligentlife.com/story/david-foster-wallace-in-his-own-words

I first read this a few years ago, but had forgotten it somewhat until last month. Ever since, I cannot count the number of times I’ve repeated that mantra. This is water. This is water. It really isn’t possible to be forever aware of the water around us—and there is such a thing as too much awareness—but Wallace (hereafter ‘DFW’) is dead-on when he notes that blind consideration of our own interests is our default setting.

In my reading, the climax of the piece is here:

If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.

Not that that mystical stuff is necessarily true. The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re gonna try to see it.

This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship.

Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.

DFW goes on to say that worshipping the divine probably makes the most sense, given the fallibility of everything else. Since I don’t have a particularly rosy view of human nature, I’d certainly agree; the problem here—as most any devout believer will probably tell you—is that logical arguments for faith aren’t especially convincing. Sure, they might sound lovely, but to true belief requires some sort of leap into surrender before a deity or some other supernatural realm. This is a leap many people are quite unwilling to take, including many people who consider themselves religious: acknowledging a God is one thing, but submitting to the teachings of faith as a serious code for life is an entirely different matter. It is also one of my own biggest stumbling blocks: a few fairly minor things aside, I haven’t really chosen to worship anything yet. I take pride in my skepticism, but that doesn’t mean I’m not aware of its downsides. Freedom always has a price.

And DFW is dead-on in his definition of freedom. The freedom we so desperately seek does not come from liberties enshrined in some constitution, though the two can be related. Freedom comes from awareness; from having the wherewithal to embrace our surroundings as they are and find our niche within them. This does not mean blind compliance; instead, I think it means something akin to the old Reinhold Niebuhr prayer adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and its various offshoots—‘God grant me the serenity to accept things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.’ That wisdom is freedom. (Though I do have something of a beef with the second clause; surely not everything that we have the power to change should be changed!) It’s all a bit vague, but freedom’s power may be in its vagueness; it isn’t something we pin down, but something we feel.

Looming over this address, of course, is the knowledge that this incredibly insightful man took his own life just three years later. DFW had his mental issues, certainly, but it makes one wonder when he forgot what water was, or if the depth of his mind somehow overwhelmed him. The task is, as he says, “unimaginably hard.” But with the right grounding, with the right object of worship, it is all worth it.

So congratulations, Georgetown Class of 2013, and all of the other graduates who are on their way off to some other stage of their lives. Finding myself largely in the same place I was at this point a year ago, it’s time for me to head out into the world again, too.

But, of course, I cannot forget.

This is water. This is water.