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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.

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I have my mother’s chin and cheekbones—my dad’s eyes and pomposity. I need to worry about diabetes, as it runs on both sides of my family. My mother’s side of the family is riddled with mental illness, and so I have inherited that load. My mother modeled depression and anxiety for me, and from her I learned the art of worrying without cease. As I watched my dad’s bitterness develop, I inherited that as well, though I channeled it through different venues.

My grandmother—my mother’s mother—modeled the same things for my mother and her sisters and brothers. My dad is too insecure to reveal the source of his bitterness, but I imagine he learned that from somewhere as well. Maybe it was merely the fact of growing up in a poor rust-belt community, working hard at a mindless job for little pay, that did him in. I am an expert now, on bitterness, and often it emanates from me. Although I’m not having children, I speak with children daily and sometimes I find myself instructing them with the best intentions, but with advice stemming from deep-rooted acidity.

The sadness and grievances experienced by our parents do not stop with them. We inherit their problems, their poverty, their fears, their beliefs, their sadness. These things move, like a cancerous mass, through the generations. These things don’t dissipate through time. Inequality works this way as well, “a cultural force, insinuating itself into family life and classrooms and replicating across generations.” The effects of inequality are sometimes not seen until the following generation. One of the things that impressed upon me in Toni Morrison’s work was how she showed that while slavery ended, the effects of slavery did not, and that trauma is passed down.

A Swedish study shows that children with parents who are experiencing depression score lower grades in school. Grades are not the be all end all, but this does show an effect on focus and motivation, factors involving stress. The data shows an impression on a social, academic and professional life venue. I certainly remember sitting on my stairs at the age of sixteen, my mother laying motionless in bed several rooms away, refusing to speak with me. I didn’t quite understand what she was going through then, but I certainly do now. But that is the thing, here—I didn’t understand, yet the experience diffused through my developing character.

I just wish a few more words had been spoken, from some source, to help nurture an understanding. Perhaps certain things would have been different for me, if only slightly. Perhaps I could have more to give now, to those I speak to and influence.

It’s very easy to be silent and cover up the issues involving our inherited grief. But, as with most things, attention and acceptance and the brutal power of honesty can help ease the burden of what moves through every family. What have we inherited? What problems do we pass on? What can possibly be helped, alleviated, soothed?

What can we do, about this sadness that moves through our families’ generations?

I sat at a desk in a small instructional resource room at the end of a long school basement hallway, gutted from construction. I was subbing for a math teacher who oversaw students with individualized education plans. So, of course, we were hidden in the back of the building, underneath the ground, in a hallway with bare drywall and netting while there existed a beautiful commons with decorations made of stained glass over on the brighter end of the hall. Where I was with the kids, the students who had already decided for themselves (or maybe someone told them?) that they can’t learn, the panels were missing from the ceiling, thick pipes showing through. Construction had been delayed. The floors and walls were stripped.

The students preoccupied themselves with their own devices. They didn’t want my help, so I had nothing to do really but occasionally speak with them and stare around the room. They tested their abilities to be cruel, as the moment was opportune, and took subtle jabs at me. I didn’t respond, continued to sit at my desk, asking if they needed help. They dropped the game when they realized I wasn’t a willing participant.

One student disagreed with everything that I said, or asked, but this wasn’t new so I didn’t pursue those derailments either. He fell into silence in the corner on his tablet. At the same table, a sixteen year old girl silently colored a picture that another teacher had given her. This was a block schedule, so she worked on this for an hour and a half.

At the other table was a rowdier crew. There was a senior wearing a black hoodie, showing off pictures of his truck while another abrasive, mean-spirited student randomly parroted in a cartoon voice, “My truck, my truck!” Beside them was a student wearing a gold chain, obsessing over the new Snap Chat features—he told me people knew his name, he had a following on YouTube, he was somebody and I didn’t know—but if I did know. If I did know, I wouldn’t question how long it took him to walk to his locker and back. While he told me this, the other two at the table pounded their fists down, “Yeah man, he’s known, he’s got a business.” 

I didn’t say anything to this. This was a suburb, surrounded by beautiful trees with bright red and orange leaves and a sparkling creek running by parallel to the school. There was nothing but suburbs for miles and miles. I could see them trying, hard. There was something they wanted to be, and I certainly had nothing to say about it—not today. After all, there were things I wanted to be, and here I was sitting uselessly, a placeholder in a strange environment. I let them lose interest in me, I diffused any arguments, as I had only slept a few hours and there was no Dead Poets Society moment ready to happen. There was just reality, drywall, this kid’s YouTube channel, and busy work the actual teacher assigned. And the measly paycheck come Friday.

After an hour of listening to them bicker about Snap Chat and girls doing too much, I found myself staring at some wall decal across from the desk. It was most likely purchased at Target, deemed perfect for this instructional resource room:

rmk2082scs_dream_believe_discover_wall_decals_roomset_a

Noise droned around me and I read this over and over and over again. Dream. Believe. Discover. Each time getting more pissed. What bullshit is this, on this classroom wall? In this setting? As if three words could truly inspire someone, or illustrate the struggle—or what it means to discover. The delirium from lack of sleep and tedium of the job made my head reel and emotions, thoughts and connections came tumbling out. Dream, dream big, follow your dreams. I had done this, and here I was sitting with these children who were bigger defeatists than I was and scowled at anyone who told them to do anything, who had more than I ever had back then. I was told what I could be, once upon a time, and I had nodded eagerly and walked myself into debt and into these classrooms that were already set up poorly by someone else before me, my brief presence having zero effect on the effectiveness of the neglected book shelf and the laptop cart the students used to do math problem after math problem after math problem on a website.

Multiple choice. Click a button. Next question.

Was this what I dreamed about?

Believe. Believe in what? Myself? Jesus, that was difficult. I told the kids I believed in them, but they looked at me and clearly didn’t believe me. I never believed anyone when I was a teenager, unless they were that right, special person that had passed through my filters and defenses. And I had just now shown up. I had the credibility of anybody with a GUEST badge, and I was so tired from work and doing work and seeking work and worrying about work that all I had left was the truth, which isn’t very inspirational sounding without the time to spruce up the language to get rid of the cynicism.

And discover. Oh, discovery! All the things I’ve discovered. And what have these students discovered so far? I discovered a lot after each brick wall I hit. I discovered after climbing so many steps that there are an infinite number of steps and I’m not sure if they lead anywhere. I’ve discovered how fucking hard everything is, and how much everyone around me is hurting. And these kids sat at their tables, pretending to do geometry multiple choice problems on a laptop and dropping drug references they thought I was oblivious to, certainly aware of some horrifying truth they had discovered in the past year but not quite developmentally ready to acknowledge the harsh discoveries happening behind the eyes of every other teenager in the room.

And then that moment when you discover that you were wrong, for a very long time. And you still have a lot to learn. But you had no idea. And now you’ve wasted some years of your life or scarred yourself in some way.

The reality compared to these three big stupid decal words was a joke. The wall would have been better off blank. I didn’t want to sling these cheesy words at kids, drape them over this lame, ineffective, time-wasting and exclusionary education system. I didn’t want them to think that discovery was some corny cursive word slapped onto a textbook over a picture of a galleon, but that it was something a lot more brutal, and deeper, and that there was something to the experience of discovering that tied us all together in this horrible but awesome way. That everything was actually horrible and awesome, and swearing and being a rebel wasn’t really that atrocious, and hating every inspirational poster in a room was okay, and normal.

As if I was that articulate then—or ever.

So the students left after an hour and a half, I wrote a referral for Kevin, and shut off the lights and left. Possibly to never even see any of these people ever again.

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