On first glance, doubt and faith seem like opposites. To the skeptic, faith is the blind acceptance of that which cannot be proven; irresponsibly naïve. To the devout, doubt is blasphemy. But as we learned this week from Don Gately’s struggle with doubt and faith, the two are inexorably intertwined. Gately has been sober for over a year thanks to the saving grace of AA, but he’s baffled as to how he can be saved by something he doesn’t really understand or believe in. How does showing up to a bingo hall full of fellow recovering addicts, listening to their stories, and shouting trite catechisms like “Keep Coming Back,” and “It Works If You Work It,” and “One Day At A Time,” keep Gately’s cravings for oral narcotics at bay? The answer lies at the intersection of faith and doubt.
Addiction itself is an act of faith. Performing their rituals, like Hal’s descents to the subterranean pump room with his little brass one-hitter, or Joelle’s elaborate improvised free-base cocaine routine, substance abusers trust that their drug of choice will always provide the comfort and relief they’ve come to rely on it for.
“Substances start out being so magically great, so much the interior jigsaw’s missing piece, that at the start you just know, deep in your gut, that they’ll never let you down; you just know it. But they do.”
Divine illusion shattered, addicts Come In to AA. “This unromantic, unhip, clichéd AA thing,” seems hopelessly limp to Gately, and most other newcomers, at first. But as he racks up more and more sober days, Gately is shocked to find that somehow, it really does work.
“And then this goofy slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever possibly work except for the utterest morons… and then Gately seems to find out AA turns out to be the very loyal friend he thought he’d had and then lost, when you Came In.”
The blind faith addicts put into their Substance, the absence of doubt that drugs or alcohol could ever fail you, is every addict’s downfall. AA is the inverse, the antidote. The clichés that form AA’s dogma seem so shallow, inspire so much doubt. That doubt seems crucial to AA’s success. Early in his sobriety, Gately tries to get kicked out of his Beginners meetings by insulting the program and all its participants with obscenity-strewn vitriol. Much to his chagrin, his invectives are met with smiles, thanks, and more trite encouragements to “Keep Coming Back.” Gately is invited to doubt away, and to share that doubt as hatefully as he needs to. You don’t have to believe in AA for it to work. You just have to do it. The deep faith that eventually creeps in is founded on the freedom to doubt. Faith without doubt is empty, doomed to let you down. Doubt interrogates faith, forces it to evolve to new information, and strengthens the foundation on which faith resides.
As staggering as it is that Wallace seems to have prefigured things like Netflix and Snapchat filters (albeit in his analog low-tech way,) the most striking prediction I’ve noticed in Infinite Jest so far is that of “fake news.” That phrase itself pops up more than once in this week’s reading in reference to the spinning newspaper headlines Mario uses to illustrate the chronology of Johnny Gentle’s presidency. Some of the headlines are real, some are fake, and it can be really hard to distinguish between the two. This, in tandem with Gentle’s undeniable Trump-ness and the section on advertising and entertainment, seem to paint a frighteningly familiar picture of America in 2017. In a clickbait world where entertainment, and more troublingly, news, is heavily influenced by the people responsible for funding it, doubt is absolutely crucial. The only hope we have of surviving this administration and our cultural political moment is to be skeptical of everything we hear, research the truth rigorously, and use our best judgment to scrutinize the motivations of content-producers. As Gately teaches us, faith without doubt is a dead-end road. If faith in America is to be upheld, doubt is one of our most powerful tools.