In Sartre’s essay Being and Nothingness, he devotes a chapter to the idea of Bad Faith. He uses the description of a waiter to convey this self-deception: a young man, darting quickly around a café, eager to please his customers, obviously play-acting at being a perfect automaton fulfilling his assigned role. The waiter knows what he is doing. He knows he is free, but deprives himself of this freedom in his bad faith. He knows himself, but chooses to act as something other than himself. He uses his freedom to deprive himself of his own freedom.
I read this essay when I was 19 for a phenomenology class. I was struck by the waiter character and the whole idea of Bad Faith in such a way that this chapter will still periodically burst into my thoughts. “Am I the waiter?” I’ll ask myself, frantic. The anxiety and question are similar to the repetitious, frantic question from the movie I Heart Huckabees (2004): “How am I not myself?” Except I know the answer.
Two years ago, I walked out of the charter school where I taught, through the city and up the parking garage, and stood looking at my 1999 Chevy Cavalier beater crammed in between the larger, sparkling vehicles. My work clothes were sharp, my cardigan matched my dress pants, I wore heels to make myself look taller. Shouldn’t my professional appearance extend to the car I drove to work? My similarly sharp co-workers walked past me to their vehicles, not expensive and new but far newer and cleaner than mine. I felt… embarrassed. I decided I needed to buy a newer car, a flawless, attractive thing that I wouldn’t sprint away from in the parking lot when I attended job interviews.
I wanted to exit my vehicle in sun glasses, and when people saw me and my charge, they would think: “That woman has her shit together.”
However, I was still relatively poor, making less money than my co-workers and a pittance in the grand scheme of things. Stringently, I saved up money, but in the end my budget limited me to a 2004 Ford Taurus. What mattered to me, though, was that an old woman had owned it, had barely used it, so it was shiny and practically untouched, beautiful, dent-less, sparkling, clean. Professional.
I was proud. I drove to interviews in my shiny car, in my work clothes, with my work purse. All of this was very different than the haphazard art, punky clothes and colorful, bizarre purses I preferred at home in my apartment. I had two sets of everything: for work, for me.
Two years later, my car embarrasses me again—now moreso than even the Chevy. Driving through hectic city traffic and chaos, I’ve slid on ice and found myself in fender benders. My hood dented in such a way that I couldn’t close it, so I bolted it shut. Ideally I would have purchased a new hood, but that was far more than I could afford. I cracked the front bumper. Then someone hit my back bumper in the parking garage and cracked it. On a foggy day, I backed up into a hidden pipe and cracked the other side. I purchased a roll of duct tape and sealed all these cracks with a heavy layer of blue tape.
My car is bolted shut and taped together. I work in a new school in a different state now, still making very little money compared to my co-workers, and my car looks ridiculous near their gleaming vehicles. I felt ashamed for a while, thinking that I couldn’t manage to avoid wrecking a car, and what would that old woman think about what I’ve done? I’ve tried to look professional and shiny and new, like everyone else I see regularly, but in reality I can’t afford things, I drive all over the place, work several supplemental income jobs, and have more on my plate than I can handle. The things I have just fall apart.
My attempts to be like my co-workers, who watch sports and have children, discuss popular television shows over tupperware and have never moved away from their hometown, who have close-knit families and free time and job security, have failed. I’m slap-dash, I just cannot compare. I’m weird and smoke too much weed and go to raves and concerts where hair gets ripped out and ears get bitten off, I drink beer with my line cook friends and shout at anime. I’m unstable and find myself checking into emergency mental health facilities overnight. I just cannot put on the same mask, it doesn’t fit.
I cover all my tattoos, afraid to let them show at work. I pick out clothes specifically to conceal them. I can’t let people know who I’ve actually chosen to be. Lately, I’ve been agonizing over a pathetic personal conflict involving my nose stud. When I had spent years working at the charter school, I had grown comfortable enough there to wear a nose ring and show my tattoos. This comfort vanished when I was back attending interviews and shimmying in skirts and high heels to stand in front of people in suits. I took out my ring and put in a tiny little stud.
I hate the stud. I feel like it’s not me, and I want to put the ring back in so badly. But—interviews. I’ve been cleaning up my image to attend interview after interview, failing every time, but still working hard to present myself as a sharp, professional woman who has her shit together.
I feel like two different people. There’s the professional façade, and then punky little me. I can’t effectively merge the two. I don’t know if this is something that takes time and perfection, or if I should just be myself and hope for the best. But the world of careers and enough money to get by—it seems to involve the automaton motions of the waiter. The concealment of the things that make me who I am.
I am the waiter. Except my movements aren’t so smooth, not so quick. You can hear the squeak and whine of my automaton limbs. My smile is too fake. The play-acting is less successful.
I know how I’m not myself. Perhaps it’s time to throw away my ideas of success and failure—and just be myself.