Please welcome today’s guest writer, Ben DeVries. Ben graduated in 2015, with degrees in Literature and Writing. He got married his wife Jes, another Calvin English major, this month. They will be moving to Champaign, IL, where he will pursue his PhD in American literature.
Earlier this June my fiancé and I went to hear Hozier, 2014’s favorite Irishman, in downtown Chicago. He was playing the Pritzker Pavilion, an outdoor venue in Millennium Park, and we, along with thousands of others, had tickets for the lawn—an enormous general admission space that, while at some remove from the actual stage, did allow attendees to bring in food and small lawnchairs. So we made a picnic of it. Adding our blanket to the rest, the two of us talked, sang, ate stilton on pre-sliced rye, and marveled at how we’d managed to turn a rock concert into a date. For us that night, or for me at least, the crowd was a backdrop, only—a labyrinth of anonymous, living obstacles that we, Theseus-like, had sometimes to navigate on the way to the john but that we otherwise ignored.
I do recall, however, a moment before the concert, as we were sitting on our blanket and plucking Swedish Fish from a bag, when the crowd shifted suddenly and alarmingly into focus. I recorded the gist of my reaction, and the ensuing conversation, below:
“You know what’s weird, Jes?”
“Everybody out here is thinking their own thoughts.”
“It’s like—I don’t know. Like, doesn’t it feel strange that everyone’s looking out of their own eyes, just like we do?”
When it comes to the quotidian, the awful depth of my perspicacity and articulateness astounds me. Of course Jes knew that people think their own thoughts, see out of their own eyes. I knew it. The rest of the GAers knew it. Thinking and seeing are what people do, and yet in the moment preceding my initial bait-question, I had known—known-known, if you follow—about thinking and seeing in a manner far more visceral than any merely intellectual knowing. What triggered this new knowing, I can’t say exactly. Something about staring at the crowd—at the college-aged hipsters laughing and touching each other on their blanket nearby, at the paunchy man saying “shit” because he’d sloshed his beer down his front. At all these thousands of people wrapped up, as Jes and I were, in their own concerns and conversations, only these people weren’t us and in fact were not even thinking of us.
People, I knew in that instant, with the gut-punch certainty that comes when you suddenly discover that your parents are human too, or that you might someday cease to be—people, I knew, not just at this concert but everywhere, were/are/will be having whole realms of experience of which I understand nothing and in which I figure not at all. What I’m feeling up here in my head, being me, is more or less what everyone’s feeling. All these thousands of people.
That moment, scary, profound, radically decentering—which came and went with flashbulb-intensity—overwhelmed me and set me babbling about thoughts and eyes. It still overwhelms me, actually, when I give myself space to think. Every moment I experience life through this kaleidoscopic array of sensations, urges, thoughts. That even one other person on this planet—just one person!—can exist at this nexus of forces as fully as I do, defies me. And yet, much as I understand but cannot appreciate infinity, I understand but cannot appreciate that this one person does in fact exist at that nexus and that, with her, seven billion other people also exist there, all of their lives unfolding parallel to mine and all of their felt experience, in its immeasurable nuance, as transcendent to me as was the particular experience of that paunchy, beer-stained man on the Pritzker lawn, twenty minutes before 7 p.m., June 10, 2015.
But then I understood why the man said “shit.”
In his 2005 commencement address, David Foster Wallace suggests that imagination is the essential component of sympathy. To imagination, I would add faith, also—faith that what you feel is maybe not so different from what I feel. This post I wrote in the belief that someone out there would relate to my experience and sympathize with me—or, barring that, that someone out there would try to imagine his way into my experience. To be sure, such a faith involves risk. That hoped-for moment of connection might misfire, might miss its mark entirely. Still, when I first reached, I did so thinking that someone would be reaching back. And often someone is, or at least is willing to try.
When that happens, it seems to me that we partake in a subtle miracle. Of a hand offered in welcome and a hand returned. Or of some thousand, disparate voices all singing “Jackie and Wilson” at once.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.