We call upon the Author to explain
She was seated at the end of a table with nine other people. She could not make up her mind what to order. The waitress came back to her three times before she decided. When I say the woman was fat, I mean that, situated in profile, directly in my line of sight, she appeared as a great oak stump, with a hundred inch girth that made it necessary for her to sit out in the aisle, enormous belly pressed against the table. Her husband, sitting on her left with his back to me, was not quite as fat, but with his T shirt riding half way up his back and his pants more off than on, the crack of his ass clamored for attention.
For nearly an hour I compulsively stared at the couple with unfettered disgust. Finally, finished with their meal, they rose and lumbered out of the courtyard where we were having our brunch. Eventually, I thought about other things.
That was Sunday. On Monday, my friend Kay sent me an e-mail: “Have you watched David Foster-Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address?” No. But it was early, so I Googled and watched it.
Foster-Wallace spoke about education, and he held that the cliché that education was supposed to teach you how to think was wrong. The purpose of a liberal arts education, he posited, was to teach you that you had an option to think in other ways than your default setting. Without being conscious of it, we naturally think as though we are the center of the universe and everything that happens around us is happening to us or for us.
That twenty-two minute speech rocked me. I got it that my obsessive focus on the fat folks the day before had nothing to do with them. It was all about me. It began when I realized that we would not get our food order taken until the woman made up her mind. I knew that when she finally did, an order for ten meals was going to go in before ours, together with the orders of everyone who came in after us whose waitperson wasn’t held up by the fat lady’s dithering. I was indignant about being so outrageously inconvenienced and, sure enough, it was a full hour from the time we sat until our food arrived.
I spent that hour constructing a vile mental picture of the fatties’ lives. I imagined that the lady’s dilemma was that she was deciding whether to order a four egg cheese omelet with hash browns, bacon, sausage, biscuits and gravy or some other calorie laden offering.
I imagined that they would go home and loll on the couch watching daytime TV while gorging on pop tarts and ice cream. I imagined that, oh, never mind, you get the picture. My self-centered default setting raged and I did a great job of character assassination on people I knew nothing about. Pathetic, right? Worse. We had just come from church where I, a deacon, had assisted in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, distributing bread and wine to my fellow congregants. Obviously, I left my kindness and generosity of spirit in the sanctuary that morning.
Foster-Wallace’s argument was that an educated mind should give one a perspective that is broader than the default “it’s all about me” stance. Had I been thinking outside of myself, I might have recognized, the minute we got to the restaurant, that our church services had just gone to summer hours, letting us out at 11:00 instead of 10:30, allowing the place to fill up before we got there. Slow service was already built into the outing, so best idea was to relax and enjoy the time with Cindy.
It would have been best if I had not given the heavyweights any thought at all. Or, be empathetic, perhaps, imagining that the lady’s difficulty was because she was miserable being obese and was struggling desperately to talk herself into ordering poached eggs and dry toast. Almost any line of thinking other than the one I chose would have been healthier. Turning my impatience (why am I not getting my way right now?) into a silent rant was just wrong.
Excuse me for foisting this essay on you. I posted it so I could stare at it from time to time. Remind myself not to be such a prick. Character building is hard.