Choosing Plunges

Does it matter if a plunge is chosen or not?

Derived from this

“Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself. What is called self-actualization is not an attainable aim at all, for the simple reason that the more one would strive for it, the more he would miss it. In other words, self actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence.”

Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl

I’d agree that ‘self – actualization’, or simply long-term happiness, comes through something outside of yourself. I feel almost envious – in an admiring sort of way – of those who (really) do find such a thing outside themselves. I myself can only speculate about this; I can’t speak from experience, because I don’t have any.

Perhaps that’s why I find myself agreeing with the anti-thesis too.

“It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately–the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into. Flight from exactly what? These rooms blandly filled with excrement and meat? To what purpose?”

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

It is impressive, what people who dedicate themselves to something achieve. A single man literally carving a path through a ridge of hills, hammering relentlessly for two decades. Giant businesses like Amazon growing from a person’s relentless obsession. Athletes and sport-persons dedicating themselves to their craft at the expense of near everything else, achieving near super-human skill at an oddly extraordinarily specific thing. All the more when you realize how much effort anything, even something tiny, takes.

But there is another side.

Sometimes, I find myself wondering about some such person – how do they care so much? And why? And not just care so much, but go on caring for years on end? And whether it’s not more than just a little pathetic – you found it worthwhile to spend years, to give your life for that? Not that I’d want to stop anyone doing so. I’d hate someone imposing their prejudices & curtailing anyone’s choice to spend their lives on what they wish.

And with that I can’t help but wonder – is it a plunge into something or an escape from something? Sure, you can say both – a flight from something manifesting as a plunge into something – but which is the driving impulse? Some plunges are genuine enough, not flights from anything but true impulses toward something. But others may well be simply escapes from a life devoid of any plunges.

I’d written about meaning once before – the lightlessness of meaninglessness and the weight of meaning. A plunge is a search for meaning in something – whether it be hitting a ball into a court or uplifting the lives of the poor or searching for a vaccine for malaria or collecting butterflies. A plunge brings the weight of meaning that can sustain a person.

A flight from in the form of a plunge into, though, is a search for something, anything, it doesn’t matter what, to escape the unbearable lightness of meaninglessness. Better a plunge into anything than this plunge-less existence.


“You get to decide what to worship.

“Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: 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. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It’s been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

“Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.

They’re the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.

This is Water, DFW

The truth is that the question – was it worth dedicating yourself to this? – was misguided.

It’s not simply that ‘who the hell am I to tell someone else what’s worth dedicating themselves to’. That’s there regardless. It’s more of – if not this, then what? What did I dedicate my years to that was so much better than that which appears to me so ridiculous to plunge into?

I could try, and perhaps have tried, to argue that I didn’t dedicate myself to anything, least of all something so ludicrous. The typical attempt to put yourself above criticism. I didn’t dedicate myself to anything, so I couldn’t have dedicated myself to something stupid. But the truth is that ‘There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships.‘ What you worship is where your time goes, where your thoughts keep returning to, where your indifference doesn’t extend to, where your effort reveals itself.

What really is a plunge but spending your life on something? And the fact is, whether I choose it or not, at every moment my life is going on something. I might spend 100% on one thing or 1% on a hundred things but I am spending somewhere. I don’t think it matters either way which of these (1% or 100%) you do; some might prefer one and others another.

What matters more than what you spend on is probably how you spend, whether you choose what you spend on. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.


‘But you assume it’s always choice, conscious, decision. This isn’t just a little naïve, Rémy? You sit down with your little accountant’s ledger and soberly decide what to love? Always?’

What if sometimes there is no choice about what to love? What if the temple comes to Mohammed? What if you just love? without deciding? You just do: you see her and in that instant are lost to sober account-keeping and cannot choose but to love?’

Infinite Jest, DFW

And how do you choose – if you do choose? That is, do you choose at all, or is it something you are lost to irretrievably, that you can’t resist?

Somehow ‘sober account-keeping’ seems antagonistic to a word like ‘love’. But to believe there is no choice about what to love is to place humans at the level of animals, unable to transcend their impulses. That you ‘can’t help it’, that you’re more to be pitied than censured. Creatures irresistibly drawn towards things, deterministically programmed by their genes, without any say in the matter, incapable of conscious choice. Whether the love is for a person, for wealth, for power, for status, for a pursuit is all the same.

Yet to disagree and hold that every choice is the conscious choice of an account-keeper is almost to artificialize a human. In one sense, to say that every relationship is a pure transaction, that the account-keeper calculates if the pros outweigh the cons and only then invests. No impulses, no feelings, no whims; only profit and loss. Where the expected ROI is maximum there the accountant ‘chooses’ to love.

And in another sense, it is to say that a person can ‘will what they will‘, can decide what is good for them and program themselves accordingly, like a robot. I sometimes wonder when I see stories of young prodigies – stories that seem to be growing ever more common. Did that little kid really long to code or make a business as a Youtuber or study to graduate before puberty? Or was it that something is good for you, therefore you should do it, and try to like it, because if you like something you’ll be better at it, and it’s good to like things that are good for you?

I’ve wondered about it in myself as well many times. Too many of my ‘likes’ are things supposed to be ‘good’ for you, physically or mentally, and dislikes (or just not a part of likes) things that are ‘bad’. How much of it is genuine inclination, and how much social or individual programming? Is it really a happy coincidence that so many of these dispositions just happen to align with notions of what’s ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for you? Are these proclivities something one’s ‘trained’ oneself to do, trying – consciously or unconsciously – to be productive?

What’s stranger still is that this seems a hard question to answer. I think after a point you can’t really recall whether you chose something (or it chose you). It becomes too much a part of you. Even if you didn’t choose it originally, now you have.

And perhaps, now that you like it, whether you chose it or not isn’t really a matter of relevance anymore.


Tennis is what Michael Joyce loves and lives for and is. He sees little point in telling anybody anything different. It’s the only thing he’s devoted himself to, and he’s given massive amounts of himself to it, and as far as he understands it it’s all he wants to do or be. Because he started playing at age two and competing at age seven, however, and had the first half-dozen years of his career directed rather shall we say forcefully and enthusiastically by his father, it seemed reasonable to ask Joyce to what extent he “chose” to devote himself to tennis. Can you “choose” something when you are forcefully and enthusiastically immersed in it at an age when the resources and information necessary for choosing are not yet yours?
Joyce’s response to this line of inquiry strikes me as both unsatisfactory and marvelous. Because of course the question is unanswerable, at least it’s unanswerable by a person who’s already—as far as he understands it—“chosen” Joyce’s answer is that it doesn’t really matter much to him whether he originally “chose” serious tennis or not; all he knows is that he loves it.

What he says aloud is understandable, but it’s not the marvelous part. The marvelous part is the way Joyce’s face looks when he talks about what tennis means to him. He loves it; you can see this in his face when he talks about it: his eyes normally have a kind of Asiatic cast because of the slight epicanthic fold common to ethnic Irishmen, but when he speaks of tennis and his career the eyes get round and the pupils dilate and the look in them is one of love. The love is not the love one feels for a job or a lover or any of the loci of intensity that most of us choose to say we love. It’s the sort of love you see in the eyes of really old people who’ve been happily married for an incredibly long time, or in religious people who are so religious they’ve devoted their lives to religious stuff: it’s the sort of love whose measure is what it has cost, what one’s given up for it.
Whether there’s “choice” involved is, at a certain point, of no interest… since it’s the very surrender of choice and self that informs the love in the first place


Perhaps, if you really love something, it doesn’t really matter whether you ‘chose’ it.

Choosing isn’t sufficient to love something; not everything I choose will be something I love. But this is more than that. It’s to say that choosing might not even be necessary to love something – you may well love something that you didn’t choose.

In that sense, maybe the question of choice isn’t really as important as it seems to be, at least post-facto. If you’ve sacrificed for something – and continue to – it probably says, and means, more than any amount of ‘choosing’ could.

I’m not really happy about a conclusion that says you don’t need to choose something to love it. It’s an easy way to abandon, or at least downplay individual agency, and justify ceding your choice to others who ‘know better’ for you. It’s also an easy tool to employ to try to convince yourself you are (or can be) happy with something someone else has thrust on you.

Summing Up

I started with the idea of ”causes’, admirable or pathetic, plunges into something or simply escapes from something. Impressive or not, you could argue a life is a series of plunges (or escapes), whether many small ones or a few big ones. Everyone worships, so everyone plunges; there is no such thing as atheism. Which is to say that if you don’t choose it, your plunge(s) will be chosen by default anyway. So maybe it’s worth being aware of that and exercising some choice in the matter.

That seems to indicate that choice is quite important, but the very idea of choosing seems to be contrary to really plunging. Can you really stand back, apart from things, aloof as an auditor, and rationally choose ‘I will love this’? Is that a plunge or is it a considered investment? It’s akin to asking if a kid can love broccoli; many can’t, perhaps some can, and maybe some can be ‘taught’ to because it’s ‘good’ for them.

And then you might wonder – is choice really such an important thing after all? Given a kid who already loves broccoli, does it matter whether he did so on his own, or whether someone taught him to? Perhaps some people would say it’s important to know anyway. I don’t think the kid would care though, not if he loves broccoli.