I was listening to a podcast of a recent episode of The Colin McEnroe Show (broadcast out of Hartford on WNPR, co-starring my sister, Chion Wolf), and as part of their discussion of how well we should get to know our candidates for public office, the Proust Questionnaire was brought up several times. From what I could gather, this was a kind of “Know Thyself” exercise that was popularized by Marcel Proust, and variations of which are used today as a kind of window into the soul of the person you’re talking to. The idea is that the only way to honestly answer these questions would be to have deep insight into your own mental workings.
Of course, the politicians have caught on to this kind of thing, so they prepare for PQ questions by coming up with the answer they think will be most electable. Which kind of defeats the whole purpose.
Anyway, I went to the Vanity Fair website, one of many that has the questionnaire (or a variant thereof) online. The difference is that Vanity Fair’s is interactive and promises to match you with a famous person when you’re all done. I don’t know how they manage to pull that off, though – the questions they give the celebs are quite different from the ones you answer on the site. In any case, I got a 94% match with Karl Rove, of all people, so it can’t be that accurate.
It’s a lot of questions, and a lot of thinking about heavy things, so I’ll break it up into a series of posts. Follow along, and if you feel like sharing your own answers in the comments, feel free!
1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?
A difficult thing, done well.
Right off the top, the big thing about this questionnaire is that it asks you to think in terms of absolutes. The best, the worst – the perfect. The problem with this is that these answers might change from day to day or moment to moment, so this is really more of a snapshot of your mind as you answer than a comprehensive look at who you are as a whole. So when I answered, I tried to be more general than specific whenever possible.
In this case, the times I’m happiest are usually when I’ve done something difficult and done it well. Whether it’s writing a story that had a particularly thorny problem to it, teaching a new lesson that I wasn’t sure would work, helping a student understand a difficult concept – I think the best moments were when I achieved something that I wasn’t sure I could pull off. How this jives with my answer to question 5 is something I still haven’t figured out.
2. What is your greatest fear?
That the people I love will move on without me. And that they’ll be right to do so.
This was something I never really wanted to say out loud, and if it weren’t for travel-induced exhaustion and several glasses of wine a few years ago, I probably would never have. But once you admit something to yourself, and then to others, there’s really no use in pretending it’s not there.
I moved away from the US in 2000, leaving behind family and friends I had known for years. I thought I’d only be gone a year, maybe two, and then come back with great stories, pick up where we left off, and everyone would be the better for it. But time went on, as time does, and our worlds started to diverge. Noticeably. People got married and had kids. They changed careers and developed new interests. They had Facebook friends I’d never heard of and did the kinds of things with them that I imagined we would have done.
If I hadn’t left.
And every year I stay, I realize that re-inserting myself into their lives is becoming less and less possible. As I put it, “There’s no Chris-shaped hole in your lives that only I can fill, and I have no right to expect there to be one.”
Yes, wine can make me maudlin and self-deprecating. Better than tequila.
My memory of that night doesn’t recall any soothing answers, either. They didn’t say, “No, no, you’re wrong!” or “Stop being so silly, of course there is!” Which I would have known to be lies, and I am happy my friends respect me enough not to lie to me.
Regardless, I fear that one day I won’t have anything in common anymore with the people who meant so much to me. Our last real, non-virtual point of reference as friends will be decades in the past, and I don’t have a whole lot of faith in my ability to catch up.
I have plenty of other fears, of course. Insignificance. Failing someone. Not living up to the expectations that I’ve set for myself. And while I don’t have a crippling fear of death, my only true prayer to the Universe is, “Please do not let my death be passed around on YouTube.”
I had trouble with this question, because any answer I give will sound incredibly arrogant. I’m pretty sure my name won’t be remembered for all that long after I’m dead, so comparing myself to Jefferson – or any person of historical caliber – seems like a real stretch.
3. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
But there is a point where I think we intersect: we’re both interested in everything. Jefferson was a true polymath, someone who found everything fascinating. He was a writer, a scholar, a politician, a President, a scientist, an architect, a botanist, a farmer – there was no area of human knowledge or endeavor that Jefferson couldn’t get interested in, and I like to think that I’m similar in that way.
Of course, there’s plenty of stuff that I couldn’t care less about. Sports, for example, or pop culture, but I can see where other people are fascinated by it. I’ve been known to lose myself in trivia, I know about things that I really don’t need to know, and I find the whole world just a fascinating place. If I had the kind of freedom of a late 18th century landed gentleman to pursue whatever caught my brain, I think I might have ended up a lot like good old TJ.
Without the slaves, of course.
4. Which living person do you most admire?
As you may be able to guess just by the fact I’m writing all this, I esteem self-awareness very highly. I think that the best thing a person can do for themselves is to know who they are, and my sister knows who she is. She knows what makes her happy and what she needs to avoid. She knows what her talents are and how she wants to use them. She is compassionate and empathetic, funny, strange, and brave, and far more at peace with the idea of finitude than I will ever be.
She has dreadlocks and tattoos because they make her happy, knows her whisky, speaks Spanish without hesitation, learned Sign Language because it looked like an interesting thing to do, and has gracefully accepted the mantle of Local Celebrity. She can make childish puns right alongside a discussion of the nature of religion, and takes no joy in making others feel bad.
My sister is great.
This doesn’t mean, by the way, that my other family isn’t just as admirable – they most certainly are. But her face popped into my head first, so she gets the door prize, such as it is.
5. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
I am ruled by my pride.
In the movie Serenity, the Operative asks Mal a very important question: “Do you know what your sin is?” Mal, of course, has a witty response – “I’m a fan of all seven” – but the question stuck with me for some reason. Probably because I can answer it very easily. My sin is pride.I can’t bear to be made a fool of, so I avoid doing things that might make me look foolish. I hate the idea of failing, so I stay away from things that I might fail at. I don’t want to be rejected, so I don’t do things that would lead people to reject me. It’s really the exact opposite of what one should do in order to be a fully-realized, happy human being. And I know it. But I do it anyway.
As mentioned above, I feel best when I do something I wasn’t sure I could do. If my mind were a rational place, that would mean that I would seek out such experiences, not caring about my pride and thus maximizing my chances for happiness and self-satisfaction. But the human mind is a tangled ball of inexplicable contradictions, so there we go. There are so many things I’d like to do – especially crafty things, things where I can make stuff. But those things are hard, and rather than see myself as a beginner on a long journey of discovery, I see myself as someone who really sucks at whatever it is he’s trying.
So rather than try and fail and look like a fool, I give up, and then a few months/years later I look back at it and think, “Wow, imagine how awesome I would be at that if I had kept at it.” That starts the “You’re just a big ol’ loser” cycle of self-flagellation and despair, since by giving up means a guaranteed failure rather than having simply risked it, and I’m then very glad that I’m an infrequent drinker.
What I wish I could figure out is where my threshold is. I had absolutely no problems with starting my story blog, or my podcast, or jumping into a new teaching job. I took those risks and made them work fabulously. Hell, I’m psychologically dissecting myself on the internet, for crying out loud. But there are other things that I just won’t do. Speaking Japanese, for one, is guaranteed to trigger my pride. When I speak Japanese, I feel stupid. Not “Ha, ha, don’t I look foolish” stupid, but actually mentally undeveloped. Like the kind of person who is unable to articulate thoughts in a manner that is understandable to other people, and that hits my pride button hard.And in talking with The Boyfriend this evening, I mentioned to him something unpleasant that I had figured out about myself: I can be nice. I can be polite and kind and considerate. I can even be funny. But I seem to have lost the ability to be friendly, if I ever had it. That talent for allowing myself to be approachable and to let my guard down is something I don’t know if I can ever manage. Why? Because of my pride. Inviting another person into your world is inviting a whole lot of chances to be brought down a few pegs, and I don’t seem to be able to handle that.
If you can figure out how to resolve that with number 2, by the way, you’re a better person than I am. The answer to that is reflective of my fear that the effort to rebuild friendships will be so monstrously huge that I’ll end up giving up entirely. And the thought that I might be the kind of person who would actually do that is wholly repellent to me. But there it is.
Keep an eye out for part 2, coming soon…ish.