Our Unwelcome Infinite Summer: David Foster Wallace and Martin Luther on Desire and Discontent

“The burning doesn’t go away? … What fire dies when you feed it?”

Ian Olson / 7.28.20

Probably the least sexy limit-experience one can have is of being bored with something one otherwise normally enjoys. Sitting in a lawn chair with Infinite Jest while my kids play with water is a good thing, one I look forward to as part of a relaxed afternoon. But why, then, do I periodically lift my eyes from the page and look about with mild panic? Why do I enumerate the other things I could be doing right now instead?

I already know: It’s because it isn’t enough that this or that thing is nice. Is it nice enough? Am I making good on the time being loaned to me? Am I using this summer well? How can I be sure I’m not wasting it? Will I look back and regret I didn’t do more? And sure enough, once that train of thought leaves the station, the moment is spoiled. 

A month’s worth of pool days won’t make me happy if these questions set the terms. It won’t make me unhappy either, don’t get me wrong. But the objective at the heart of all my desires is bigger than an one pool can answer. One can’t put much of a dent into an infinite debt. Which also means that boredom’s formal opposite, feverish activity, isn’t the solution, either.

Do I owe such a debt to summer? Can I waste a summer that I almost certainly preemptively knew would be a wash, relatively speaking? It certainly feels like it, but is that genuinely a possibility? Or is our fear of that possibility its only possibility? 

We may collectively be fighting against coronavirus, but individually, our days look much more like fighting against boredom. But to be a part of that fight is to have already lost it. If boredom is something we think we need to defeat, it shows how we are already mired in a way of seeing the world and ourselves which is painfully out of tune.

One of our most basic, driving assumptions is that we must maximize our happiness by running full-tilt after the things we think we want. But we find ourselves running so much farther for so much longer than we anticipated once we take off. The straight line I had presumed lay between me and my happiness turns out to be a labyrinth. I jump in here, jump in there, crave, crave, crave! — drawn inexorably deeper and deeper into the cage of my own need for more. 

One of my favorite passages in Infinite Jest is a conversation in which an Enfield Tennis Academy student named LaMont Chu seeks the wisdom of institutional guru Lyle. LaMont burns with the need for tennis stardom but this has begun to sabotage his game. Lyle graciously bursts LaMont’s balloon.

Perhaps the people LaMont envies did once enjoy their visibility as celebrities, Lyle says.

Perhaps the first time: enjoyment. After that, do you trust me, trust me: they do not feel what you burn for … Something changes. After the first photograph has been in a magazine, the famous men do not enjoy their photographs in magazines so much as they fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines. They are trapped, just as you are.

“The burning doesn’t go away?” LaMont asks.

“What fire dies when you feed it?” Lyle answers indirectly.

LaMont doesn’t want to sound ungrateful for the advice, but he doesn’t feel much better. But Lyle isn’t finished: “You suffer with the stunted desire caused by one of [the world’s] oldest lies. Do not believe the photographs. Fame is not the exit from any cage.”

“So I’m stuck in the cage from either side,” LaMont laments. “Fame or tortured envy of fame. There’s no way out.”

“You might consider how escape from a cage must surely require, foremost, awareness of the fact of the cage,” Lyle concludes.

We’re all like LaMont: We hear this as bad news. But Lyle insists we are deluded, that this is good news. And it harmonizes well with the good news of Jesus Christ. We can’t give life to ourselves, nor can we spring ourselves out of the cage. We can’t arrive at any of our aims directly by brute force attack. All of our efforts to rush straight towards the thing still culminate in us slamming into the bars of the cage. And everything we thought was a door out of the cage was another entryway deeper into it. 

We all have an intuitive sense that if we’re going to have a life or a self, then it falls on us to grasp it for ourselves. It’s a deeply ingrained assumption we carry, and that carrying dissolves our enjoyment of the things we’ve been given to enjoy. This side of the Fall we find the assumption woven into our desires the moment we desire them. But God’s love does the total opposite: It frees us from the burden of securing this infinite bliss for myself.

Being a human being redeemed in Christ means allowing my habits, my compulsions, and my often obscure motivations to be critically questioned so that I can face head-on how un-free I habitually am. We can neither exercise enough choice to manufacture freedom, nor simply decide to stop desiring altogether. What other course could be left if the two obvious options are debunked?

If this all sounds like a bummer, you have to ask yourself: What’s the alternative? To bravely accept the inevitability of sadness and pose it as the existentially courageous act of a heroic, Camus-inspired ego? Look inside for the solution to your woes, and you will find within yourself an infinite bummer. 


We have to know the shape of the cage as it camouflages itself within our desires. We have to let today be and let go of that gnawing need for it to be anything else but today. And we can only do that if we listen to the Spirit of Christ, who declined every disguised cage in his pursuit of the desire that deep-down animates us all. 

But knowledge doesn’t thereby open the door out of the cage. Martin Luther shows us how all roads still lead to the cage in his explanation for Thesis 22 of the Heidelberg Disputation:

Desire cannot be satisfied by the acquisition of those things which it desires. Just as the love of money grows in proportion to the increase of money itself […] the desire for glory is not satisfied by the acquisition of glory, nor is the desire to rule satisfied by power and authority, nor is the desire for praise satisfied by praise, and so on, as Christ shows in John 4:13, where he says, “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again.”

For Luther (following Augustine), our activity, our motivations, our neuroses all emerge out of the desires which make us the unique individuals we are. What does Luther recommend? “The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it.”

At face value this sounds like Lyle’s bad news. Extinguish my desire? The solution is to just stop desiring? How exactly does one do that?

One doesn’t. But one can relinquish the reflex to try to seize the infinite. Luther is urging us to halt our plans, our very “need,” to secure that infinite satisfaction on our timetable with only the resources we have. This bad news recognizes how our efforts to grasp at this thing trap us within a closed loop of dissatisfaction and hopelessness. Our desires reflexively lead us to seize what we want instead of passively receiving the gifts God has for us.

What if we refused the imperative to conquer summer, or whatever else it is we are pursuing for that infinite good? What if we embraced God’s hospitality in making us guests of this world rather than some hypothetical alternative? Guests of this summer, rather than of another one we daydream about?

The freedom worth having isn’t in amassing enough or sucking the marrow out of life — it’s in making this decision or accepting this reality at this time in all its specificity and finitude. Letting joy arise when and where it does frees us to listen to others (and to God) and to relinquish the kung-fu grip we hold on our happiness. It enables my backyard reading or my bike rides with the kids to simply be fun times without the burden of needing them to be anything more.

As we get used to our justification, we learn that we aren’t the masters of this domain; we are honored guests, who find that things are put in place, ready for use, for enjoyment. We might find that the cage isn’t the truest, deepest fact of the world; that it’s our own self-imposed exclusion from the relative goods that still beautify the world and our lives within it. Within us there might not be an infinite summer, but outside there might still be a summer to be enjoyed.