Thursday, April 03, 2008

just killing time till the other me shows up

We are discussing Sartre and Existentialism this week in my classes. It’s one of my favorite parts of the semester because I get to step up on my soapbox (or at least pace back and forth across the front of the classroom, ranting and waving my arms like a pumped-up coach at a championship basketball game) and wax philosophical about choices and responsibilities and how one’s existence precedes one’s essence. I tend to bring up things like chocolate chip cookies too, when the muse (or particularly depressing current events) speak to me. It’s not just my students who I think will benefit from a good dose of Sarte now and then. I need my semiannual refresher too. Every time I review my notes for the Existentialism lecture, I remember how much I believe that my essence (who I am) is shaped not by destiny or by circumstances beyond my control but by my own choices—the grand ones and, more importantly, the millions of small, seemingly insignificant ones.

“Man is nothing else but what he purposes,” Sartre says, “he exists only in so far as he realizes himself, he is nothing but the sum of his actions.” We can look at who we are, who we’ve become thus far in however many years of life (and for me, according to Dante, I am mid-way through life’s journey which is a sobering thought) and we can simply do the math to see how we got here. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that—like the adult plant which scientists say weighs exactly (down to the tiniest mole of matter) the same amount as the parts of soil and water and air that went into it—I am absolutely nothing but the sum of my actions. But I do think it would be faulty science to wish that instead of the sum of my actions I were the sum of my intentions or my desires or the awesome plans I have organized and mapped out for myself in the ultimate Franklin Planner that is my mind.

Here’s the line from Sartre that resonated most with me this week:
Many have but one resource to sustain them in their misery, to think that “Circumstances have been against me, I was worthy to be something better. I never found a lover worthy of me, I never had time to write great books. There remains within me a range of abilities, unused but perfectly viable – a worthiness which could never be inferred from the mere history of my actions.” But in reality… life a man commits himself, draws his own portrait, and there is nothing but that portrait. . . . dreams, expectations, and hopes serve to define a man only as deceptive dreams, abortive hopes, and expectations unfulfilled.
Picasso, Girl before a mirror
There are two Julies. There’s the Julie I want to be: the mother, the teacher, the person I believe I have the potential to be. And then there’s the Julie who actually inhabits my body. The real Julie. The essence of Julie. Sartre’s “self-portrait” of Julie. The sum-total-of-my-choices Julie. And to be honest, I like the former one (the potential Julie) lots better. Most days, I live in the world of the potential Julie. I escape into the imaginings of what she can do and might become and will accomplish. . . tomorrow. . . just as soon as I (the real Julie) recover from my current stressful thing or get out of this latest stretch of funky sadness or get these papers graded or finish reading this really really good book.

Trust me, the potential Julie is a wonder to behold. If you only knew her like I knew her, you’d understand why I prefer to hang out with her rather than my real self. The potential Julie homeschools her kids as I know I should be doing. She bakes the bread that I have bought all the ingredients for. She sits by her children while they practice the piano because I have convinced her that it’s the single best way to help them improve their technique. She reads her scriptures and prays like she means it (and never has doubts about the effectiveness of either). She actually reads every one of the books I check out for her at the library. She gets those writing projects done that I have started and then she bravely sends them off to agents and editors (and I have no doubt she will graciously share with me the untold wealth and personal validation that will come from their publication.) She knows how much I care about the environment, so she’ll follow through on those ideas I’ve come up with about making reusable grocery bags and helping Ethan start up a recycling club at his school and figuring out a way for our county to start recycling glass.

Naturally, the potential Julie has my same eyes and hair and is exactly my height (because it’s not like I’m living in a fantasy world here), but she is more slender, she jogs in the morning while I'm sleeping in, and she looks great in anything she wears, which by the way would never include sweatpants in public. (I know this because she tells my how ridiculous and frumpy my bum looks when I wear sweats to the grocery store. Have you no shame? she asks me. And I tell her it doesn’t matter because tomorrow, she’ll be the one taking over. And everything I’ve done is just a trial run, a Julie Beta, the clearly inferior and slightly embarrassing opening act who gets the audience ready for the lead performer to come onstage.)

So it’s Sartre who reminds me that there’s only one me that counts and it’s the real me. The me who makes the choices I make about what to wear and what to eat (and when to stop eating it) and what to think. It is me and only me who chooses to waste the time that I waste. And honestly, I’m not such a bad me. It’s just that I have to let go of the lie that I’m right on the verge of passing off the baton to this other person, this better version of myself who will relieve me of the burden of responsibility, sweep away all the consequences of my choices like a fairy godmother with a really amazing broom.

In so far as everything we contemplate and think does affect our behavior, the potential Julie does have an influence on the real me. But she is, at the most, merely a warped reflection in a mirror. What I see in her may be the very best of my own intentions (the sum of all my good thoughts as I am the sum of my actions). But she is not a fully-developed, 3-dimensional person. Once the mirror is put away or the lights are shut off, the reflection ceases to exist. I, on the other hand, can’t shut off my true self. As much as I want to escape into the future and imagine things becoming different from what they are, I am decidedly stuck with myself. I can’t fire me, divorce me or trade me in for a better model. I have potential to change (there’s always hope, and since according to Dante I’m only midway through life’s journey there’s still time). But any change has to come from a building up of choices. My essence is not already determined, like a scent or a flavoring that has been extracted and bottled up and corked. It’s more like that plant in the lab—an organic thing that lives and breathes and absorbs nutrients and grows new pieces of itself every day.


SuburbanCorrespondent said...

Hmmm....I don't think the Potential Julie would have a heck of a lot of friends...I like my friends humanly flawed, myself.

And, sweetheart, there is no "should" about homeschooling. Do it if it makes you happy; but take full advantage of our sorta free gov't schools if homeschooling would make you miserable. The kids grow up and leave us no matter what, and they end up being the sum of their own actions, too.

Liked the Brain, Child piece, by the way - I can't remember if I told you that yet.

tjhirst said...

I would love to come to that lecture, but your thoughts here will have to be enough. This has stirred my thinking and I admit embarrassingly that it is the potential me that motivates and inspires the real me.

But I wonder about what you said, "In so far as everything we contemplate and think does affect our behavior, the potential Julie does have an influence on the real me. But she is, at the most, merely a warped reflection in a mirror."

Maybe I am warped, but it is when I lose sight of the potential me that I see a warped reflection of the real me in the mirror.

Karlene said...

I absolutely loved that. Interestingly, it inspires a lot of hope in me. I want to print it out and hang it on my mirror and read it every day. May I?

Tangent Woman said...

Jules- you are amazing BECAUSE you are flawed. If you were a perfect plastic person - I would have to hate you.
How comfortable would children be crying on a designer shoulder being patted carefully so as not to mess a manicure. Would your oh-so creative kids feel like they could make fun messy projects in a disinfected, spotless house?
If you were "perfect" by the world's or even your definition - there would be no insights to inspire the rest of us mere mortals - who so desperately crave the chance to say - "oh, you too?! - I thought I was the only one" -(all hail to this brilliant blog of yours)
Inspiration comes from being in the valley and looking up to higher heights - where we want to be. Looking down from the peak of perfection only produces condescention.
- Sorry, long post :)

Theresa said...


I just read your piece in Brain, Child and I'm so content. Much better than a shot of anything. You perfectly captured those minute details of what it's like to be so tired of everything momdom requires, but yet still willing to do them.

I love how you take art and bring it to this level. Make me care about the paintings and see them with new eyes. I can't wait until your BOOK of essays is complete. Because then I can buy it and savor it, just like the one in the magazine.

Which I'm off to read again because I deserve it and I'm sure my son will allow me those scant five minutes. Thanks for the good work. And congrats on the publication.

PS I was wondering what your husband was talking about a few posts back.

Anonymous said...

Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy your writing and I relate with so much of your life (even though I'm just a man). I read your blog religiously because I enjoy it, but mostly because I think it makes me a better person. Reading how you place your priorities and deal with your own struggles has both amused me because of the striking similarity in our lives, but it has made me better because of the resolve I gain to be a better .... or do a better job at .....

I did not enjoy this post because I don't feel encouraged to be better than I am; to try again because this time will be different. My life is filled with rejection and people telling me what I'm doing wrong or things I'm not doing right. There are too many grant reviews, manuscript reviews, annual reviews with the department chair, tenure review, and the stupid PPI with the second counselor in the elders quorum. I don't blame the reviewers. Every reviewer believes that in order for it to be a good review it should point out ways to become better. They have to "lay hands upon you." But the take home message is that what I am doing or what I propose to do isn't good enough; I should be better.

I can't afford to think that I can't be better than I am right now. The perfect Nathan does exist out there somewhere, and I have to believe that I can be that person. Maybe not now, and maybe not all the time, but I can be that person; even if for just a few fleeting moments. I can write the best grant of my life, I can develop a new idea, my ideas really can save lives, and I can do my home teaching two months in a row. If I don't believe that, then the reviewers are right.

Keep writing! Your work is good, you can read your scriptures and pray like you mean it, you can bake bread (just not every day - that's what Granny Smith is for), you can overcome rejection from agents and editors, and your bum isn't frumpy. You can be the person you want to be and you can do the things you want do. You may not be able to do it all the time and you may have to pick and choose which things you really want to do, but for at least one moment at a time you really can be "that Julie." I've seen her. I know her. I remember her well. I'll look forward to reading her next post.

Many thanks,
Nathan Cherrington

My Ice Cream Diary said...

Just the thing I needed to read today as my two selves battle with each other.

You are so right, it doesn't matter what my ideal self is, it is only an idea until put into action. I may believe in good health, evercise, good mothering, etc. But if I'm not taking steps to put these thoughts into action then they are not a part of me at this moment. (In other words I really need to get of my hiney and start doing what I am always saying I will do tomorrow but never do)

Luisa Perkins said...

This may be my favorite post of yours, ever. And that's saying quite a bit.

The Lazy Organizer said...

I am often overwhelmed by how far I have come in life and yet how far I have to go. I have to say though that most of the time I am pretty content, not with where I'm at, but with the process of going somewhere. I know I'm headed in the right direction but it's difficult to tell how fast I'm going.

Candace E. Salima said...

I think we all have the "real" me and then the "me" we want to be. What keeps getting up every day, working hard and moving forward, is the though that if I work hard enough, the "me" I want to be and the "real" me will be one and the same. Isn't what eternal progression is all about?

Annette Lyon said...

I absolutely loved this post. I see it as a very positive, motivating thing--I hope Nathan can rethink it. Because the point isn't that we're not good enough. The point is that we can't live in a fantasy realm where we pretend we're going to be good enough without actually doing something. It's all about action. But you know that. And said it much better than I could.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Oh how I can relate to the "two Julies." Yes. If only I were just a little more like my imaginary version, though. Like when I lie in bed, having hit the snooze alarm, and picture myself jogging. Do you do that?