Overriding the Default Setting

by the Rev. Scott Walters


“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.” – David Foster Wallace


The quote above is from David Foster Wallace’s commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005. Click HERE if you want to read it for yourself. Please do, actually. The speech was (partly) about a trip to the supermarket after a long day at work.


Rather than telling all that bristling, robed intelligence that great things await them, that they can achieve their wildest dreams, that their nimble minds and open hearts will make the world a better place, David Foster Wallace said this:


Anyway, you finally get to the checkout line’s front, and pay for your food, and wait to get your check or card authenticated by a machine, and then get told to “Have a nice day” in a voice that is the absolute voice of death, and then you have to take your creepy flimsy plastic bags of groceries in your cart through the crowded, bumpy, littery parking lot, and try to load the bags in your car in such a way that everything doesn’t fall out of the bags and roll around in the trunk on the way home, and then you have to drive all the way home through slow, heavy, SUV-intensive rush-hour traffic, etcetera, etcetera.


The point is that petty, frustrating crap like this is exactly where the work of choosing comes in.


The startling thing about these lines is that they could be just as appropriately delivered to dropouts and misfits in a court-ordered anger management group. Life is about choosing. And whether you’re graduating from an elite private school or teetering on the edge of society, what we choose to worship matters. And the ultimate choice becomes whether to worship something or someone out beyond myself or to live as “lord of [my] own tiny skull-sized kingdom, alone at the center of creation.” (More of DFW’s truthful brilliance from the talk.)


Learning how not to end up alone and angry in the checkout line is not an insignificant part of what life and religion are all about. It’s as true in Evergreen as it is in Orange Mound. If all we have to worship is ourselves, we’ll live in one hell of a lonely place.


Not, perhaps, what the bright young graduates at Kenyon were expecting. But we all have to come to terms with the checkout-line self. That familiar self there under the soul-sapping fluorescent lights, among the soul sapped shoppers, among all those annoyingly other people, where everyone and everything is in my way.


It’s there that I find my basic default setting. (Or maybe “original sin” anyone? Anyone?) It’s my way that matters. Why can’t everyone else just get out of it?


But the good news is that we do get to choose … at least a little bit. We do get to choose whether or not to live like it’s only my way that matters. And so I’m a Christian. 


Maybe this seems like a flimsy argument for religion. Maybe you’re still hoping for seven irrefutable proofs that will pin your doubting mind down and show you the light, or convince everyone else of the light by which you see. But I don’t think there’s a single airtight argument for the truth of the Christian faith. I’m less and less certain there’s a single airtight argument for anything that really matters. And even if there were, we’d still have to choose to trust it. It takes so little effort to find a source to confirm whatever it is you want to believe.


Faith is about stepping out into a perspective beyond the confines of my default setting. It’s about giving up the small kingdom of my own skull and getting the whole world in return. The whole wondrous world of shopping cart clatter and traffic, of the shuffling old and the spastic young.


And maybe what I get first when I override my default settings for even a moment, is simply that other soul on the other side of this table, just beyond my own cup of coffee, telling me who she is and why she’s happy or sad or angry or bored and what the world looks like from a perspective other than from the inside of my own head.


My kingdom would be an awfully small one to give up even for only that.

9 thoughts on “Overriding the Default Setting”

  1. Great food for thought. Makes me wonder if my default setting is self-ness or living outside myself. Which is innate and which is learned? Could go either way.

    1. Great question, Martin, and very helpful to have you frame it as you do. I do feel like, in myself at least, most of my unhelpful versions of the default setting are forms of unhealthy selfishness. Overweening pride is obvious enough. But I also think self criticism or a martyr complex or other familiar funks I can fall into are also varieties of unhealthy self obsession. It also seems like the best “self care” involves strategies that help me be at peace with my true self enough to see my interconnectedness with the world around me. What’s innate and what is learned? Now there is a great mystery. Thanks for commenting. Always appreciate your insights.

  2. When my mother survived open heart surgery, and was in recovery, she asked if there was a mirror on the ceiling of the operating room. The nurse assured her there was no mirror and my mother said, “I saw myself facing down on myself and smiling which made me feel that there was nothing to fear.”
    I nor my sibling will ever forget this.

  3. Don’t know what that memory had to do with turmoil at the checkout line….maybe it was about the turmoil of me and my siblings as we feared losing g our mother

    1. Well, what Wallace said was that our default setting is to retreat into the little kingdom of my own head where my needs, desires, and perspectives are all that matter. I loved that your mother had a vision of being released from that, in which she could actually offer comfort and assurance to herself. But fascinating that even her own smile came from outside her in that moment.

  4. I LOVED this. Could mentally just see you in line at Krogers and was delighted that you’d apparently done the shopping. (Not all men do.) And some of us women feel exactly the same way and have to find a way to accept the inevitable and learn to be more patient.

    1. Ha! Well, that was David Foster Wallace’s story, but I have been to the grocery store a time or two!!!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *