“To become different from what we are…

…we must have some awareness of what we are.”
Eric Hoffer

True words, those.

We have come to the end of the Proust Questionnaire series, although there certainly are more questions to be answered. I took mine from the online version done by Vanity Fair, but if you Google the PQ, you’ll see a lot of other questions, including the ones that Proust actually answered. Such as:

  • Your favorite names
  • Your favorite heroes in fiction
  • Your favorite occupation
  • Your heroines in world history

And so on.

These are all great questions, but the kind that don’t come up much after, say, college. Once you’re mired in the world of bill-paying, pleasing your bosses, and just praying that your body doesn’t decide to up and quit on you, the existential kind of falls by the wayside. And that’s without even talking about having kids, a responsibility I’m pretty sure I will never shoulder.

The task of just getting through life is what takes up our attention, and we replace our own understanding of who we are with a placeholder, a desktop icon that just reads “I”, without thinking much about what “I” means. But just like the “My Computer” icon on your desktop isn’t actually your computer, this placeholder-self isn’t actually you. From time to time you have to open it up and take a look inside to see what’s there, before the whole thing crashes and you’re left with a philosophical Blue Screen of Death and the horrifying prospect of rebuilding everything from scratch.

Okay, enough metaphors. Let’s get this done.

16. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Knowing that you failed because you were too scared to try.

I’ve touched on this throughout this series, but I think it’s best matched with question 5 from the first entry. But it also reveals the vast gulf between the person I am and the person I want to be, and the knowledge that the gulf even exists is cause for sleepless nights.

To be clear, I am not always scared to try. When I interviewed for the job that would take me to Japan, I told the interviewer that one of the reasons I wanted to do this was the song “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” by Marianne Faithfull [1]. Give it a listen:

I told the guy that I didn’t want to wake up at some point in the future and wonder what life would have been like if I had taken the chance to go to Japan. The song says, “At the age of 37, she realised she’d never ride through Paris / In a sports car, with the warm wind in her hair.” Faithfull sings this song with such pain and regret that I was determined not to end up like Lucy Jordan. I had a chance, I knew there was no reason not to take it, so I did. And it worked out beautifully.

The same goes with my current job. When I took it, I didn’t know if I would be any good at it at all. I thought I could end up totally out of my league, eventually shunned from polite society and forced to return to eikaiwa. But when they called me and offered the job, I said Yes without hesitation, and it also worked out beautifully.

So I’m not a complete schlub. But there are times when I do back off from a chance because I don’t think it’ll work out, and not for rational, easily-understood reasons. Just a feeling, or my poor, scumbag brain just screaming, “YOU’RE GONNA FAIL!” over and over again. Usually, I’ve discovered, this will happen when the consequences can directly affect other people. Moving to Japan, for example, or starting a new job, mostly just affects me. If I fail, then my life gets shit on, but the people around me can go on more or less unmolested and I’m okay with that. [2]

But when there’s a chance that my failure could directly affect others in a negative way, then I tend to shut it down. Which is nice, I suppose, but it’s still making a choice out of fear. After all we’re not talking about, “Should I set off the bomb?” kinds of decisions here. It’s more like, “Should I enter into a relationship with this person?” or “Should I make a promise of this kind?” I know there’s a chance I could succeed, and that success would bring good things to all involved, but the chance of failure overshadows that, so I back off.

But still, like Lucy, I wonder what could have happened if I’d tried. And that, friends and neighbors, sucks.

17. Who are your heroes in real life?
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Theodore Roosevelt, Terry Pratchett

In no particular order, mind you.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson has risen in the last decade or so to become one of my favorite astrophysicists. When Carl Sagan died, I mourned not only a thinker and educator that I loved as a kid, but also the loss of a person who was able to take science to the people. Americans tend to be very suspicious of science, while at the same time gleefully enjoying its fruits. The popular image of “scientist” has long been that daffy, awkward, eccentric Doc Brown character, or the Evil Mastermind who wants to destroy us all. Thanks to lazy media, disingenuous politicians, and education standards that just keep slipping, people understand less and less of what science actually is. And that which we do not understand, we fear.

Whatever the case may be, it takes a very special kind of person to overcome that dislike of science among the Average American, and Sagan was wonderful at it. Then he left.

He's still a handsome man, but damn...

I really thought that there would never be anyone to replace him, but up came Neil DeGrasse Tyson. He’s wonderfully smart, funny, uncompromising about the scientific nature of the universe, and is a very snappy dresser. What’s more, he is able to communicate that sense of wonder that is the Average American’s door into appreciating science. Sure, there’s a lot of math and numbers and things to remember, but at the heart of it all is the utterly simple and childlike question that has driven all of science since the dawn of humanity: I wonder how that works.

As a teacher, I know that the best way to get people interested in a subject is to show passion and wonder in the subject. Tyson exemplifies that for me, and I will gladly follow his example.

Theodore Roosevelt is on this very short list mainly because he’s just so much damn fun to read about. For one thing, he embodies the antithesis of what I wrote up there in number 16 – he didn’t give a damn about whether something would succeed or not, because he was utterly convinced that it would. And if not, then it would be damn fun trying.

TR's teeth alone could kick Chuck Norris' ass.

He built himself up from a sickly childhood, moved out to the wildest of the west, and made friends with the kind of rough-and-tumble people who wouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near the hyper-rich Roosevelt family back in New York. He didn’t give a damn about class distinctions or background, but only in who the person sitting opposite him actually was. He was a rich man who cared about the poor, an avid hunter who was passionate about conservation, and a true lover of war who nonetheless made a reputation as a peacemaker.

And, in my absolute favorite TR story, he once gave a ninety minute speech after being shot in the chest. I bet a wuss like Bush or Obama would probably do something like go to the hospital or bleed to death. Not Roosevelt, dammit! He had a speech to give, and by thunder he wasn’t going to let a bullet to the chest stop him!

Theodore Roosevelt really does exemplify for me the kind of passion for life that I wish I had, a fearlessness that everyone should have. He would have been a spectacular Green Lantern.

As for Terry Pratchett, he’s my hero writer. There are a lot of writers I admire for not only their work but their lives. Stephen King, for example, has been writing professional nearly non-stop for longer than I’ve been alive. Some of his books have been outstanding, some not, but he never stops. John Scalzi is one as well, considering how level-headed and grounded he’s stayed as his star has risen. He has a very realistic view of his career, and seems to truly appreciate the life he’s built with hard work and talent.

Terry, though, has written consistently wonderful books for the last thirty years, putting out just about one book per year. His Discworld series has become one of the most popular fantasy series ever written, and ranges from goofy and light-hearted fun to biting social commentary to deep philosophical insights, sometimes just in one book. Every time I read something of his, I have cause to think and to learn.

I have a hat like that, but I'll never look as good in it.

What’s more, he’s an avowed humanist, something that I have certainly come to appreciate. In his book with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens, he suggests that humans stop worrying about what Heaven and Hell want them to do and start deciding things for themselves. In Small Gods, he looks at the relationships that people have with their gods and with belief, and how they can best work together. Feet of Clay asks what it means to be a person, Lords and Ladies examines how we relate to the stories we tell ourselves, and there’s a whole track of novels that have to do with the very nature of death and dying. He also looks at politics, commerce, entertainment, family, class issues, war – Pratchett is a master at taking a big issue and wrapping it up in enough humor and narrative to make it consumable to a mass audience. And he does it without condescension or mockery.

That’s why his current state of affairs bothers me so. He has Alzheimer’s, and while he’s doing all he can to stave off the worst of it, there’s really only one outcome for that illness. Knowing what’s in store for him, he’s become an advocate of right-to-die laws, and has begun to make plans to meet Death on his own terms. He even made a documentary about it last year, in the hopes of raising awareness of the importance of being able to choose one’s own end.

I’m of two minds on this, of course. On the one hand I really, really wish that none of that were happening [3]. And I know it’s a selfish impulse, but I don’t want him to go. I want him to hang on and write as long as he can. He is a great mind, and I hate to see it gone.

But, like I said, that’s a selfish desire. It’s about what I want, and what I want isn’t at issue here. Once I get past that, I understand and appreciate the gravity of the task he’s undertaking. He’s faced with an unwinnable scenario, and he wants to end it on his terms. When he does go, one way or the other, I will be heartbroken. But I will hope that I have nearly as much strength of purpose when it comes down to making such a choice, and that I leave behind even a fraction of what he will.

18. What is it that you most dislike?
Surrendering reason to fear.

I could have just said “Religion” and it would have meant the same thing, though that’s not entirely fair. Religion has hope mixed up in it, however false it may be.

A better example could be America’s post-9/11 freakout, where we were suddenly terrified of the entire rest of the world. People stopped flying because they thought there might be another attack. Little towns in the middle of nowhere were convinced that “the terrorists could strike here.” And the highest officials in government scared the populace shitless in order to justify invading a country just to cross an item off the Neocon bucket list.

Beware your fears made into light...

Fear is part of being human, and everyone is susceptible to its influences. Pants-soiling terror is a perfectly understandable reaction to seeing those towers come down, or seeing Dubya sit in that classroom with a “What do I do now?” look on his face. When you hear about kids shooting up their schools or young women who get breast cancer or people being poisoned by bad Chinese gyoza, it’s understandable that you might feel the spindly fingers of fear trace their way across your naked brain.

What bothers me is that so many people stay in that state, even when the endorphins wear off and the threat recedes. Rather than taking a step back and trying to see if their fear is justified, they cling to it and allow it to become the touchstone of their decisions. They manipulate themselves and others in order to try and assuage this unreasoning fear, and thereby do nothing more than to spread it around. Fear is a major governing force in our lives, and it’s usually not a very good one since it hasn’t been calibrated to deal with the modern world. It’s a biological system that was designed to deal with imminent physical threats of attack by predators, and remained so for hundreds of millennia. Now those ancient fears are gone, replaced with more nebulous, existential fears, but the same system is reacting to them.

To balance that, however, we have marvelous advances that have come about in the last couple hundred years. We know so much more about the world than we used to, and have so much more control over our lives and our environment than our ancient ancestors could ever have imagined. We have reason, logic, science, and experience that we can set against fear, and to refuse to attempt that is, in my opinion, a denial of thousands of years of cultural and intellectual revolution.

I’m not saying it’s easy, and gods know I’ve let fear lead the way enough times myself. But to not even try… That I cannot stand.

19. How would you like to die?
Heroically.

Something like this would be fine, thanks.

Yes, I’ve read far too many comics.

All things considered, though, I’d like to go out in an act of heroism. Saving people from a tsunami or taking a bullet for the President or rescuing a bus from burning orphans or something like that. Something where my selflessness causes the whole world to stop and appreciate the true goodness that is inherent in everyone’s heart. [4] Then they name high schools after me, there are books and articles written, and “Chris” becomes the most popular name of the year. In a few decades, the Chris Gladis Lunar Colony is established, and one day in the far future, in whatever form the English language has mutated into, my name becomes a synonym for all that is good and righteous in the world. I become the center of a new religion of true peace and enlightenment, and become the anti-Hitler, invoked as a symbol of the best humankind can be.

There are, of course, a few problems with this idea.

Or this.

The biggest one is that I’ll be dead and beyond caring. Whether I sacrifice my life against a rampaging monster that wants to devour children, or I’m found under a pile of exhausted, underage rentboys, I will have ceased to be and will be unable to either take satisfaction in or be ashamed of how I died. So in that sense, the answer to how you want to die isn’t really about how you die, but the legacy that you left behind.

The way I see it, death is really your very last chance to do something of merit in your life. If you’ve lived a full and meaningful life, helped all sorts of people and are comfortable with your contribution to humanity as a whole, you might choose “Peacefully, in my sleep, surrounded by family.”

If, on the other hand, you feel that you’ve not done enough for the world – for one reason or another – then this is it. This is your last shot at the big time. Will you go out with a bang or a whimper? Will the world remember you, or will you sink into oblivion?

The way things are looking right now, I don’t think that my future exactly has “legacy” written all over it. I’m sure I’ll be remembered by family and friends when I go, and maybe I will have one or two students who got some inspiration from what I said or did and go on to have happy and successful lives, but right now it looks like I will simply be one of those countless billions who have lived and died forgotten by history.

This'll do, too.

Unless, of course, I do something dramatic.

Why, then, don’t I put on spandex and patrol the streets looking for crime to stop? Because while I know how I want to die, I’m really not keen for it to be anytime soon. All things considered, I’m ready to state that being is better than non-being, so I think I’ll give being a shot for as long as I can. [5]

Plus, have you ever seen me in spandex? No? Well, there’s a very, very good reason for that, and you’re welcome.

20. What is your motto?
Control what you can control.

Hello, boys... (6)

I got this one from Brother Gary, one of my drama teachers back at Siena College. We were doing tech rehearsal for one of our shows – Softcops, I think – and he was giving us a rundown of what was going to happen. The lighting and sound people were going to go through all the cues, try out some things with the design, and basically make sure that everyone knew what would happen and when in the final production. For actors, this is a boring and frustrating process. Rehearsing a light or sound cue often means going through the same thirty seconds of performance over and over again. We might have to wait for ages before we’re called up, and then run the end of a scene four or five times. If the cue takes place in a big moment, we can’t build up to it, or we can’t follow through on it when the cue is done.

Basically, tech rehearsal is not about the actors, and the actors hate that.

So Brother Gary took us through the schedule and reminded us that it was very common to get bored and frustrated. He then said that we should control what we can control. Lighting and sound are beyond our control, and we shouldn’t worry about them. That’s the worry of the director and the stage manager and tech crew. All we should worry about is doing our job and being where we need to be. Everything else is superfluous.

That really stayed with me, and has become something that I mutter under my breath when the world isn’t working up to the speed I expect it to. When I go to the airport and there are half a thousand people filtering through two TSA gates, there’s really nothing I can do about that. What good would it do to get angry or kick up a fuss? None, that’s what.

"Existence is devoid of inherent meaning! AAARGH!"

This has done a lot to reduce stress and to generally divest myself of the idea that my life is entirely under my control. There are times where it encourages complacency, however, as I have to correctly assess whether certain things are actually under my control. For example, if a student isn’t doing his or her work, how much control do I have over that? How much should I pressure them to do good work, or should I just let things play out and hope that the effects of their laziness reveal themselves?

It’s a situational thing, but as far as mottoes go, it’s wonderfully functional.

All right, that’s about it! Many thanks to those of you who stuck through all this, and I hope you enjoyed it. If you have any other Proustian questions you’d like me to answer, just throw them into the comments and I’ll be glad to do it. Probably.

—–

[1] Written by Shel Silverstein, believe it or not. This song just became even more of a favorite.
[2] This is without getting the aforementioned Pride involved. I can deal with failing. Looking like a moron, however, is a much higher bar to clear.
[3] A sentiment, I’m sure, shared by Mr. Pratchett.
[4] But mine especially.
[5] Mind you, this is a terribly unscientific statement, seeing as how I have no memory of non-being. But I’m pretty sure the math backs me up on this.
[6] This photo freaks The Boyfriend right out. Maybe I should re-think my seduction techniques…

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One comment on ““To become different from what we are…

  1. […] “To become different from what we are… (mshades.wordpress.com) […]

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