Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The truth beneath cliches

In order to truly believe/trust in something, must you understand it?

Maybe not. In the novel Infinite Jest, there's a scene where this former drug addict/alcoholic is talking to his sponsor, saying how he doesn't understand God, and therefore struggles to believe in Him/Her/It. He gets on his knees every night and prays to what feels like Nothing, or the ceiling.

Gately, the recovering drug addict, is baffled by the fact that, despite his lack of understanding/belief, he has managed to stay sober for a year. He is stunned that the AA program, which requires a surrender of one's will to a Higher Power, has miraculously worked. Gately is baffled by this. He doesn't understand it.

To which the old haggard sponsor ("Ferocious" Frances) replies, "Maybe anything minor-league enough for you to understand probably wasn't going to be major-league enough to save your addled ass."

This feels profound. When Gately first hits rock bottom and is desperate enough to join AA, he is put off by all the cliches the AA people constantly spout. It all seems so trite and contrived to him. The AA people listen to his complaints and hug him and say, "Just Keep Coming." At this stage, it doesn't matter so much what he believes or understands, but what he does. So he keeps coming back because he is wiling to do anything to free himself from his addictions.

Slowly, over time, the cliches that the AA people keep spouting start to mean something. Gately begins to realize that many of these trite-sounding cliches actually represent truths that are deep. But it is the sort of truth, of understanding, that is gained from lived experience, from living one more day sober. It is not the sort of truth that can be learned in a book, or from a lecture.

For example, "Getting in Touch With Your Feelings is another quilted-sampler-type cliche that ends up masking something ghastly deep and real, it turns out. It starts to turn out that the vapider the AA cliche, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers." (Infinite Jest)

Maybe some cliches become cliches because they are true. Growing up in a conservative evangelical Christian environment, I inherited a whole load of vapid cliches, most of which now make me cringe or roll my eyes. But what if some of these cliches are actually true? What if, to truly understand them, one must discover the truths they mask in real life? Maybe this is why I never fully abandoned my faith. Because, despite my over-educated academic mind, I suspect there are gut level-truths hidden beneath the worn-out cliches of religion.

I don't understand God. I'm not sure what I believe. But, in my heart, deep down, in that place of truth-beyond-language, child-like, I retain something that might be called faith.

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