Dear Readers: I promise that this post is indeed about immigration and the quadrennial election on Tuesday. Please read to the end, beyond the meandering yet relevant introduction, to see the connection.]
Just over four years ago, David Foster Wallace, a gifted, troubled writer of wide acclaim, took his life. Fans of his writing, myself included, have marveled at his intelligence, wit and humanity. Reading Foster Wallace is an exercise in mental gymnastics and focused attention that pays bountiful dividends.
Thirty-seven years ago, another writer and deep thinker, Rod Serling, who gave us the Twilight Zone television series, lost his life to heart failure while likewise still in his prime. Gene Roddenberry, futurist and creator of Star Trek, could have been describing Foster Wallace when he lauded Serling thusly: “No one could know Serling, or view or read his work, without recognizing his deep affection for humanity . . . and his determination to enlarge our horizons by giving us a better understanding of ourselves.”
Serling’s introduction to his show — epitomizing the man himself — is forever a part of American culture:
You are about to enter another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land of imagination. Next stop, the Twilight Zone!
I thought about the parallels between the two writers this week when I stumbled on a Twitter post that led me to Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College. Here are excerpts from his talk about the real value of a college education, the ability to distinguish, depending on the degree of our committment to “attention” (Foster Wallace’s take) or “imagination” (Serling’s formulation), the autonomic from the conscious thoughts that come to mind while experiencing life’s prosaic events.
Foster Wallace illustrates his point as he describes a mundane, seemingly “boring” wait at a grocery checkout line, disrupted by the outburst of a frazzled mother yelling at her boisterous child:
[If] you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. . . .
[The] so-called real world will not discourage you from operating on your default settings, because the so-called real world of men and money and power hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom all to be lords of our tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation. This kind of freedom has much to recommend it. But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about . . . in the great outside world of wanting and achieving. . . . The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.
That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing. . . .
[If] you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.
Just as serendipity triggered by social media led me to think of Foster Wallace, and then to Serling, it led me to my friend and immigration-law colleague, Paul Parsons, who this week offered an inspiring Facebook post to show “why being a U.S. immigration lawyer can be the greatest job in the world”:
Last Friday we received our first two Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) approvals, and one of those clients sent this uplifting message today:
I just wanted to take another opportunity to thank you all for your help. I do not think I will ever be able to explain with words or emotions how immensely happy and grateful I am. For the first time in my life, I have a sense of belonging in the country that has raised me. My life has not been easy. I have had my fair shares of bumps and bruises along the way, but [life] is not supposed to be easy.
I know you all take pride in the work you do, because there are not many people that can say their job involves giving people the opportunity for a better future. You give hope to those who might have felt hopeless. You all can go home with the satisfaction of knowing you helped somebody, in many cases an entire family.
There are memories of things, events, and people that I will never forget, some good and some bad. Now I have one more good memory to add and you all will be part of it. Keep up the good work because there are many others like me waiting for the same opportunity.
. . . You are in the business of changing [lives] for the better, thank you again for making my life one of those. There is a saying that goes “Before you have a story you need to have a storm”. Well the storm has just past and the story is now only beginning.
As Americans vote for our leaders this week, I hope that we use both our attention and our imagination; that we remember our origin as a nation of immigrants; that we recall the wonders of immigrant innovation and the resulting benefits we enjoy; and that we call to mind our “power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down.”
I hope as we enter the “other . . . dimension” of the voting booth, “a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind,” that we are not entranced into reflexive thinking about “the so-called real world of men and money and power [which] hums merrily along in a pool of fear and anger and frustration and craving and worship of self.” Although our “present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom,” I hope we remember that elections trigger consequences, and that precious lives and futures depend on our choices.
I also hope we acknowledge that America needs people, and more people, like Paul Parson’s client, as well as the remarkable contributors whose lives are poignantly revealed in Green Card Stories, just as much as we need dedicated public servants who help “resolve horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem[s] through some small act of bureaucratic kindness.”
In short, I hope we choose leaders who are likely to welcome rather than reject our nation’s courageous and deserving immigrants.