“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…..in 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 mirrorThere 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.