Magritte, Man with a newspaper
In the first frame, a man reads a newspaper. In the second frame, the man has disappeared. By the third frame, we are wondering where he went. By the fourth frame, we are wondering what’s the point? Why does Magritte introduce the man to begin with, only to strip him out of the scene one-fourth of the way through the story, never to reappear? Is the painting about the man’s presence or is it about his absence? Or maybe it’s about the inconsistency created by having both in the same painting. It’s the lack of a pattern that makes this work frustrating and elusive.
Art is usually all about patterns. Art provides things like symmetry, balance, familiarity, and meaning in a world that is mostly unpredictable, unfair and irrational. That’s why we like art. We like knowing what comes next. We like artists who make up their creative, passionate, opinionated minds and stick to a single composition without wiping out major protagonists at the start of Act II.
Doesn’t a man with a newspaper usually symbolize a creature of habit? The guy gets his daily paper at the same time. He walks to the same café. He sits at the same table. He orders the same breakfast. And while he’s waiting for his order to arrive, he reads the paper (always the sports section first, of course). But here, for no good reason, our newspaper man changes his mind. He doesn’t show up. If the painting depicted only two frames—one with the man, one without him—we’d at least have some balance. And balance is a form of consistency. But instead, we get total flakiness. Magritte tells us there’s going to be a man with a newspaper (the man must be important because the painting’s named after him) and then with each succeeding frame, we have to watch the artist remake the potentially agonizing decision of whether there will be a man or not. Magritte happens to decide Yes No No No. But I get the impression he could just as easily have said No Yes No No or any number of other combinations. It all seems pretty arbitrary and capricious. Or as my teenage son would say, “It’s so random.”
If our lives (and I believe this to be true) are made up of the sum total of our daily, hourly, momently decisions, then our lives are also given meaning by the patterns we create by these decisions. One of my biggest challenges is creating these patterns. I lack consistency. I am flakiness incarnate. I make decisions or commitments only to forget about them or change my mind. Case in point: I’m on a diet. No I’m not. Yes I am. No, I’m just eating only healthy food. Except when my daughter brings home a bag full of chocolate eggs from her trip to the store with daddy because then I’m a hedonist. But the next morning I’m recommitted to healthy eating. Until the next slight temptation comes along. Wouldn’t it save a whole lot of psychic energy if I could just make this decision once and for all?
I did decide to never take an elevator on campus again (after being inspired by a former student who set this goal when she started her Freshman year) and I’ve stuck to this decision faithfully. This may be because I told all my current students about my resolution and it’s partly the fear of humiliation that keeps me honest. But nonetheless, I’ve been consistent. Why can’t I show this kind of consistency throughout my life?
I really hate making decisions. (I seriously get hives in the sandwich bag aisle at the store. I'm standing in front of this huge wall full of colorful little boxes and it's just too much. Will it be zippers or folds? Ziplock, Glad or generic? Which ones are on sale? How many are in each box? Do I use my coupons? Do I really need sandwich bags? Or do I need snack size or pint or gallon or the “bread and food” size? Or should I just forget the whole thing because I recently decided to limit my use of plastic since its production and disposal are bad for the environment? We could just reuse the containers we already have, except these are also plastic and I read somewhere that they cause cancer... Honestly, the reason I can’t go to the grocery store in the evening is because I have a threshold for how many decisions I can make in a single day and by the evening I’ve already hit my quota and I’m likely to have a complete mental breakdown on aisle four.)
So my point is that if I hate making decisions, wouldn’t it be more efficient to make certain decisions ONLY ONCE and stick to them? Getting up in the morning, for example, should not be a battle of will. I should be able to pick a time and just know that I will get up at that time. Why do I continue to re-invent the wheel every morning when I think “Oh, my alarm is going off. I know I decided last night that I would get up at 6 am, but now I don’t feel like it so I will sleep for a (totally unrestful) nine more minutes. And then, of course, I have to re-decide this getting up business nine minutes later and again and again (sometimes several times) until I finally drag my sorry self out of bed. This is a huge waste of my limited supply of decision-making energy for the day.
Especially frustrating is the fact that I seem to have passed my flakiness on to my kids. Every day they have to remake the same decisions about whether or not to practice the piano (often determined by whether I have decided to remind them or decided to be distracted by other things and not remind them) or whether or not human children should inhabit clean rooms or messy rooms or whether or not homework is important or forgettable or whether the TV stays off during the week (as mom has sporadically proclaimed) or if maybe this week is one of those weeks where the man with the newspaper hasn’t shown up and it’s a free-for-all. I can’t tell you how many times Gabie has come home from school and fallen immediately into some activity or project and when I tell him that he needs to do his chores first, he looks at me with an expression of total surprise as if I’d just announced we’re going to speak only Norwegian in our home from now on. “Chores?” he says disdainfully. “Seriously?”
And here’s the point I’m arriving at this week. I think I am also capable of deciding once and for all whether or not to be happy. Normally, I make this decision every day, and really every moment, depending on what’s at hand. In fact, I typically ride the edge of a paper-thin line between cheerfulness and total depression and it takes a slight breeze to send me off one side or the other. Why is this? I’m smart enough to know that I control my emotional destiny. I can be a happy person if I want to. But much of the time lately, I choose to be grouchy or frustrated or sad. I believe I choose to be this way. And then I choose to tell myself that I have no choice but to be this way.
The other night in my class (we were discussing Tolstoy), a student began a comment with, “I think the reason why people choose depression....” My first reaction was to argue that people don’t choose depression, they suffer from it. But I’ve been thinking about this ever since and I know my student wasn’t entirely wrong. Now before I go further, I have to clarify that I know, on a very personal level, that sometimes depression is not something we can “pull ourselves out of” and it requires outside medical or even chemical assistance. But lately, I feel my dark moments are of my own creation. I have four healthy children. My husband has a secure job. I have things to do that are important to me. The weather is finally getting warmer. If I am unhappy, I have decided over and over to be unhappy. And the scary thing is that if I decide to be unhappy most of the time, I’m creating a pattern. I’m defining myself as a generally unhappy person. Do I really want this to become a habit?
My sister Kathy told me last night that she made a similar realization a few months ago (that she can make the conscious choice to be sad or happy) and so she has decided to be happy. When people ask her how she’s doing, she spends her excess mental decision-making energies playing a game of her own creation. Each day, she has to use a different letter of the alphabet to describe her happiness. Today, she is on letter V. She may be vivacious today. Or victorious or venerable. Tomorrow, she’ll be wonderful or wacky or winning. The point is that it’s her choice. She does save the 27th day to be in a black mood if she wants (because we all need to be truly sad once in a while). But the next day, she’s back to awesome. And just imagine what a smart, talented, compassionate person can accomplish with the pre-made decision to be awesome.
So, in honor of my sister and for the sake of replacing bad habits with good patterns, and to set a better example for my kids who need more consistency in their lives, I’m deciding to be happy. And because I can still be random, and because today is St. Patrick’s day, if anyone asks me how I’m doing I’ll probably tell them I’m feeling very verdant.