Thoughts on the Mundane, Inspired by The Pale King

I just finished a book by David Foster Wallace called The Pale King.  I’m not recommending the book unless you enjoy reading that is hard work, like Dostoevsky.  Honestly, if it hadn’t been the selection for book club, I would never have finished it, but I’m glad I did.  It’s a book about boredom really, although I liked it much more than many other books that try to be interesting.   It uses the microcosm of a tax return examination center in Peoria, IL and the various life stories of the tax examiners who work there to show us something true about the macrocosm of real life: most of it is uninteresting.  We try to prove otherwise through Facebook posts, Tweets, and blog posts, but the fact remains that even jobs and relationships we enjoy aren’t sources of constant, inherent fascination.  We sometimes use social media to try to validate our life experiences by elevating them into something fascinating (what else can account for endless, beautifully doctored photographs of plates of food?).

Anyway, I wasn’t entertained by the book, but while I was slogging through it, I found that it made me see my whole life differently.  Chapters I’d read the night before would somehow come true the next day.  For example, there’s one passage that’s just sentence after sentence of tax examiners turning pages.  Literally “David Cusk turned a page.  John Wright turned a page.  Ann Morris turned two pages, then turned back one page.  Bob Yancey turned a page.”  And on and on it went like that, for a whole chapter.  He makes you experience what he’s trying to describe.  The day after I read this chapter, I walked into my classroom and had to spend the whole morning administering PSATs.  The administration booklet says, “You are not permitted to grade papers, read a book, or do anything that would distract your attention from monitoring the test.”  For three hours (with a break), I had to sit there doing nothing and listening to students turning page after page after interminable page.

I don’t think this happened because of any voodoo in the book.  I think it speaks to a universal human experience.  We all have to deal with the long stretches of mundane life in between the highlights.  Despite the appearance of our Instagram accounts or Pinterest boards, our days are mostly filled with the ordinary.  It has only been recently, and largely, I think, through advertising and “reality” television, that we have come to believe that this is not how life is supposed to be.  If we’re bored by our jobs, our hobbies, our relationships, then we simply need to get new ones, not adjust our perspectives.

One of the most glorious truths of Christianity is that it infuses the ordinary with significance.  We don’t have to engage in long, weary sessions of photography and editing to validate our ordinary tasks. Every thought and deed echoes in eternity, and it is possible to perform the most mundane tasks–even eating and drinking–to the glory of God.  I came away from David Foster Wallace’s book with an overwhelming appreciation for a God who counts hairs and watches sparrows.  If the mundane is not beneath His notice, it’s certainly not beneath mine.


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