David Foster Wallace’s book, Infinite Jest, is unique: hilarious and bleak, enlightening and depressing. Wallace tried on two separate occasions to become Catholic but sadly was never baptised. You can feel his striving and yearning, looking for the Truth. Tragically, he killed himself when he was only 46 and we will never know whether he would’ve made it to Rome or what insight he would shed on our current culture.
Much of the tome concerns addiction and how deep pain, or a frightening vacuum, makes people turn to drugs and alcohol. This is certainly true and can be seen with alcohol, drugs, sex, pornography, money and all the other things we lean on when there is some pain in our life we can’t face.
At one point in Infinite Jest, one of the characters is bed-bound and unable to speak and a minor character, Tiny Ewell, tells him how he thinks his alcoholism started from an episode as a young child. He had acted despicably, cheating people out of money with his oratory skills, eventually having to steal money from his own parents to settle the spiralling debts he accrued.
He says: “My whole descent into somewhat-heavier-than-normal drinking may have been some instinctive attempt to bury third-grade feelings of despicability, submerge them in an amber sea.”
It’s entirely plausible that some great shame can be thrust downwards, allowed to fester and grow until it becomes something so frightening it needs to be hidden from in the form of drugs or alcohol. When I was reading this affecting moment the first thing I thought of was just how beautiful confession is.
Confession is divinely inspired as it takes into consideration our need to get things off our chests and for absolution; no matter what terrible thing we have done we are still okay, still lovable. Before I came back to the Church there were many things I had said and done that I was ashamed of and my mind would constantly flit back to them, confirming I was an awful person, thus making me more likely to do something else bad. When you tell yourself ‘I’m a bad person’ then this becomes reality and you act like….a bad person.
Confession heals us of this because we leave it in the confessional. Once we’ve confessed something and God has forgiven us then that is that. Of course, some sins take a long time to recover from and leave a hole in our souls but knowing the Father has forgiven us allows us to begin the process of moving on. If the mind does settle back on whatever it was which was so bad we can say to ourselves ‘God has forgiven me, so I ought to, too’
Doing bad things and making mistakes is part of the human condition, particularly when we are young. Poor Tiny Ewell didn’t have the sanctuary and the refuge where he could go to unburden himself of his sin. God never lets us down, always forgives and priests are expertly armed with the ways to help us.
Tiny Ewell’s Sin
Tiny Ewell’s sin went unconfessed and the shame grew so that, in his own words, he drank away the pain. In his mind he was despicable and he married a woman who “looks at me as if I were a dark stain at the back of her child’s trousers”, a job doing despicable things, and a debilitating addiction. In short it “may have informed my whole life”. It’s not to say Catholics don’t struggle with things such as addiction but confession is an incredible weapon in our armoury.
Addiction, like the Devil, prospers when we think of ourselves as bad and useless and forever contaminated. The more Ewell’s sins went unconfessed the larger they became and the more influence it wielded over his life. When running scared from the confessional, we allow our sins to settle into our psyche and begin to dictate things. As the old saying says before you sin, God, says ‘remember My justice’ and the Devil says ‘remember God’s mercy’; after you sin God says ‘remember My mercy’ and the Devil says ‘remember God’s justice’.
Poor old Tiny Ewell’s whole life was ruined because of one episode in his childhood which he never faced up to. This can happen to any of us: never, ever underestimate the human mind and its ability to work directly against you. Just because it lives inside your skull doesn’t mean that always acts in your interests, and I can certainly think of other parts of the human body that sometimes wants to act contrary to your overriding goals.
The Genius of the Sacrament of Confession
Wallace seemed to have an understanding of how shame can corrupt and it goes to show the genius of the sacrament of confession. It became a sacrament in the 13th Century and modern psychology vindicates its importance for our sense of well-being. It is truly divinely inspired and it offers us spiritual cleansing.
Tiny Ewell’s story can show us the danger of not going to confession and what can happen if we allow our sins to take root in our souls. Let us pray for David Foster Wallace that he found peace in the next life and thank God for his incredible talents. St. Thomas Aquinas showed us that God’s truth can be found all over and that we can learn from those who were not Christian. Infinite Jest sheds some insight on how addiction comes about, but also that confession is a mighty weapon against it. And thank God for that.