“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. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things…then you will never have enough…Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure you will always feel ugly, and when time and age starts showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you… Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid… Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”
Worship is a word readily associated with religion, with honoring a deity by saying prayers, singing hymns, and reading scripture in “places of worship.” But in his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College, author David Foster Wallace puts worship in a broader context. Wallace infers that we worship something when we give it the power to define us, to be the measure of our worth, to be that which we pursue in order to feel successful, secure, fulfilled, and worthwhile.
In his advice to young graduates, Wallace is making a case for worshipping “some sort of god or spiritual-type thing” because anything less will “eat you alive.” When we worship at the altar of false gods, we judge ourselves and others by that which is temporal and temporary. There is nothing inherently evil about money, material possessions, bodies, power, intellect, and the like, but because they are finite, they can never satisfy an infinite longing; because they are not a “spiritual-type thing,” they cannot satisfy a spiritual need. If we attempt to find ultimate meaning in what is less than ultimate, we will feel chronically unfulfilled.
It can be difficult to discern whether something or someone we value has become an object of worship. One indication that we have crossed a line is if we feel driven, obsessed, and insecure about where we invest our time and energy. The haunting sense of “never enough-ness” is another sure sign that we are worshipping a false god. But perhaps the most obvious indication is one that British playwright George Bernard Shaw referred to when he said: “There are two great disappointments in life, one is not to get one’s heart’s desire, and the other is to get it!”
Perhaps we would do well to pursue not the desire of our heart, but of our soul, not that which makes us happy, but that which can bring us joy, not that which will end, but that which has lasting value – unless, that is, you don’t mind being eaten alive!