The familiar panic at being misperceived

Among other less-than-savory monikers like the Special Snowflakes or Participation Trophy Kids, people my age have been referred to as the Self-Expression Generation. For better or worse, Millennials were brought up to value the ability to convey ones inner-self to be perceived by others. Self-expression can be a valuable tool in the human quest to escape isolation. However, in the 21st century, the desire to express oneself has been commodified by social media and exploited by, to quote the David Foster Wallace character in The End of the Tour, “people who do not love us but want our money.” We all want to be perceived as we truly are, but is that even possible?

In the opening scene of Infinite Jest, we find Hal Incandenza, age 18, in a college admissions meeting. Acutely self-aware and painfully self-conscious, Hal has a big problem: he’s completely incapable of self-expression. As readers, we can hear Hal’s thoughts. They’re sensitive, perceptive and articulate. But when Hal tries to speak out loud, his words are perceived as inhuman sounds. Even his movements are uncontrolled, spasmodic, to the point of warranting emergency medical attention. Hal tries desperately to communicate with other people, mentally screaming “I’m in here. I’m not what you see and hear.” But all that comes out are unintelligible noises.

The phenomenon of failed self-expression, which Hal describes as “the familiar panic at being misperceived,” is a universal human experience. On a deeply personal level, we all know the frustration of being misunderstood when our words come out wrong. We’ve all felt the pit-of-your-stomach sensation when some self-expression, be it a new haircut, some work of art we’ve created, or a bold declaration of feeling, is met with confusion, ridicule, or indifference. But we also suffer from this on a larger cultural scale. When one side of the political divide in America tries to express its point of view, what the other side hears is incoherent, almost inhuman.

We met several characters this week, many of whom struggled with self-expression in the context of the story. For instance, Ken Erdedy obsessively composes his disingenuous persona in order to hide the truth about his marijuana addiction from even the dealers selling him huge quantities of the drug. However, one particular character in this week’s reading has self-expression problems stemming not from the narrative, but from the form of the novel itself. Clenette Henderson, a young black woman, is introduced in a section written from her perspective in a vernacular that reads like an outdated, insensitive swing at Ebonics. Lines like, “Wardine be like to die of scared,” are tone-deaf at best. While I choose to believe good intentions of the author, this section is definitely hard to swallow. It’s as if the character is unable to express herself authentically due to the limitations of the author. I find myself wondering what Clenette might sound like were she written by someone more in tune with her experience. While she may make us uncomfortable, the Clenette we get in this week’s reading has a lot to teach us about expression, representation and appropriation. I hope you’ll all join me in grappling with these issues in the forums this week.

When Hal’s father tries to achieve a connection with his son by disguising himself as a “Professional Conversationalist,” he thwarts his own efforts by indulging in self-expression over actually listening to his son. When the elder Incandenza attempts to strike up a conversation about one of Hal’s interests, Byzantine erotica, Hal obliges, asking “Alexandrian or Constantinian?” But Hal’s father, laboring under the delusion that Hal is incapable of speech, plows on without acknowledging Hal, and derails the conversation by unleashing a litany of accusations against Hal and his mother. He’s incapable of hearing anything Hal has to say. Instead, he pontificates, preferring to express himself than truly communicate with Hal. There’s a dark side to self-expression. When we express ourselves at the cost of a two-way dialogue, self-expression can be the death of genuine human connection.

This week, I’d like to take my first stab at the sacred reading practice of Lectio Divina. More accurately, I’ll be practicing the version of Lectio Divina as revised by Vanessa Zoltan and Casper Ter Kuile of the Harry Potter & the Sacred Text podcast. Here’s how it works: I will flip open to a random page from this week’s reading, blindly select a sentence, and ask myself four questions. First, what is the literal meaning of the sentence? Second, what is the allegorical meaning within the context of the book? Third, what in my own life does this remind me of? Fourth and finally, what action does it call me to do? Let’s jump right in.

From page 31: “Who’s lived his whole ruddy bloody cruddy life in five-walled rooms?”

  1. This line is spoken by the Professional Conversationalist/James Orin Incandenza during his rant. He’s telling Hal about the relationship he (JOI) had with his own father, whose newspaper formed a wall between the two, prohibiting a communicative relationship.
  2. JOI has an intense need to express his sorrow over his repeated failure to establish true connections with the people he loves. However, he’s unable to see that this very desire to share his feelings is further alienating Hal.
  3. This sentence makes me think about self-awareness. JOI can’t see the role he plays in the failed communication between Himself and his loved ones. In my job teaching and caring for young children, I deal with a lot of difficult behaviors. Many times, when nothing I’ve tried has worked, I realize that the challenging behaviors I see in a child are actually a reaction to something that I could be doing better.
  4. This moment in Infinite Jest calls me to be more aware of the effect I have on others, and when faced with a difficult problem, always ask myself, “What could I be doing better?” Even when we’re not the sole cause of our own troubles, there’s always something we could change within ourselves to improve the situation.


It’s a new year. Here in America, we have a new president. What feels like a fresh start to some feels like the end of days to others. We’re divided, and everyone wants to make their stance known. Whether in the hopes of being understood by the other side, or of being identified with by like-minded people, we all want to express ourselves. We all want to be heard and understood. This is inherently American, unavoidably human. But if the first pages of Infinite Jest have one thing to teach us about the human impulse of self-expression, it’s that there’s another side to the equation which is equally important. We express ourselves to feel less alone. But to truly bridge the gap between two individuals, or two sides of a divided nation, we have to do something else. We have to listen.


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