I spent a long time trying

to find my center until I

looked closely one night &

found it had wheels & moved

easily in the slightest breeze,

so now I spend less time

sitting & more time sailing.

–Brian Andreas


Since the twentieth century (the so-called modern and then post-modern age), we have generally become comfortable with the idea that the self isn’t all that locatable, all that well-defined, all that real. Still, as individuals, we spend a lot of time searching for ourselves (like Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love), reading self-help books and keeping journals. We collect photos–“that was me when I was three. . .” We are discouraged from defining ourselves through our work, especially since so many people don’t even like what they do to earn a living. Sometimes it can be kind of depressing. It’s like a never-ending school project. Maybe if you meditate more you will find your true self. Maybe if I accept myself as I am, I will like myself more. Maybe if I exhibit more self-discipline, I’ll reach my full potential. Plenty of messages out there about how to construct the self, or not (there’s always the Buddhist no-self doctrine).

Still, you have to get up in the morning and fill up the day; even David Hume agreed on that. I might be nothing more than a series of impressions held together by acts of the imagination, but I still have to feed myself and others. Most of us want more than that. Is it a sense of making a difference?

I know I’m tired of the rat-race feeling that doesn’t allow me to reflect on much of anything and produce writing or projects of any real value. If you are a person who likes to create but are never afforded the time, you remain optimistic only so long as you can still assume that a window of opportunity for making something will open up. But if it never seems to, it’s downright discouraging.

Julia Kristeva writes in her book on Hannah Arendt,

Each of us leads some sort of existence, and many of us have lived through adventures, often interesting ones, that can provide fodder for family legend and sometimes for the local newspaper or even the nightly news. Yet such experiences are not the stuff of a noteworthy biography. Let us agree here to use the term ‘genius’ to describe those who force us to discuss their story because it is so closely bound up with their creations, in the innovations that support the development of thought and beings, and in the onslaught of questions, discoveries, and pleasures that their creations have inspired. In fact, these contributions touch us so intimately that we have no choice but to moor them in the lives of their authors.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say this juncture of life and work that is a must is “genius,” but it is at least a drive that some individuals feel about how what they are doing and who they are are supposed to connect to make something real. I don’t think the recognition from others on this point is necessary. Hannah Arendt had this kind of energy in spades, but so do everyday people.

I’ve been thinking lately I should sit down and write a biographical blurb about my life, the life I would want to have lived (and still hope to). In other words, I wonder about the exercise of taking all the pieces of a life (which are just pieces of my life but, if you step back, not always that uninteresting–I’ve been granted and made for myself some unique opportunities) and claiming for them a greater whole that I might not manage to accomplish, if I’m not careful.  It’s time to be intentional. I can point out a thread that runs through my academic work, which connects as well to social issues I care about. So what if I would actually do something about all that and become someone who creates something out of life and work?

If something like who we really are as humans living a life emerges out of the tension of being both a subject and an object (to ourselves and others), how does that understanding lend itself to projects that improve the lives of girls or amends crippling alimony laws? Where is the book of essays? Where is the project that helped middle school girls? Where is the movement that changed the antiquated laws?

I am comfortable with the idea of a fragmented life on the one hand, especially since the self is always constructed by ourselves (what should I wear? how do my eating habits and workout choices sculpt my image?) and others. A photographer like Annie Liebovitz captures human beings with her gift. We say that such a gifted photographer shows a glimpse of the essence, perhaps, of another. Her exhibit, Pilgrimage, shows portraits of a different kind. Georgia O’Keeffe, for example, is one individual “represented” by a series of photographs, in none of which O’Keeffe herself appears. Rather, separate photographs of her chalks, her door, bones, a NM landscape tell us about Georgia O’Keeffe. Through the exhibit, we learn what matters to Annie Liebowitz. We might learn something about how she sees herself, or at least her cultural heritage and definitely what she cares about. She said about her work,

“This is one life, and the personal pictures and the assignment work are all part of it.”

At the end of the day, what are we besides an ensemble of the things we care about? What I admire about Hannah Arendt and Annie Liebowitz is that they went that extra step and put it together so it means something to those who stumble across it.



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  1. Nicole says:

    Well, I don’t think I could respond anything personal to this right now without dissolving into tears for (what seems) the hundredth time this year (yes, I know it’s only January), so I’ll just say something tangentially related to your words, “everyday people”:

    A friend of a friend published a book- his memoirs- and was hoping his friends would buy it. I think he might even have been giving away copies as gifts. He is a man who has no education beyond high school, has lived a rather average life, I think he is recovering from a drug addiction, and doesn’t seem to be the kind of person who is literate or has deep thoughts on any specific subjects. So, I asked my friend, “How did he get published, and are you going to read his book?” My friend said in a derisive tone, “Psh, it’s a vanity press. Any idiot can write and pay to have their books published there.” The impression I got was “It’s not worth reading and anything he has to say is unimportant; what a waste of time.”

    I do not understand that kind of thinking. Even if someone is a horrible writer in terms of creativity, structure, grammar, and so on, what makes the average person’s thoughts any less important than the acclaimed writer’s thoughts? Is it because Corporate/Academic Publishing House tells us so? It’s a memoir, so this is his life story he feels is important enough to share with the world. Fine, so it isn’t a money maker. But he clearly felt his friends and family would care enough to read it.

    I found the whole thing to be very sad. The mental health community keeps saying, “It gets better!” when we are suicidal or depressed, yet so often we have to deal with a society -sometimes even friends and family members- that tells us “You’re worthless because you are unemployed/not an accomplished or recognized (read:wealthy) writer, artist, whatever.”

    As I reflect back on an Existential Psychology course I took, the current thought among psychologists is that we seek immortality and self worth (because we are aware of how short life is, and want it to mean something). We are constantly fighting against the things that remind us of our immortality or insignificance. We not only erect gravestones, but with technology’s help, can include video clips for those who visit our graves. We write memoirs in the hopes that we won’t be forgotten and can justify that *our lives mean something*. We have this evolutionary drive to reproduce, to carry on (replicate) our genes and form emotional bonds so that our young will survive. We conform to and believe in ideologies and religions to feel a part of something bigger than ourselves, sometimes even believe in an afterlife, even though there is no real evidence for it. Some go so far as to say that nakedness reminds of us our ‘death threats,’ so we create defenses (clothing, moral codes) against social nudity. The reality is, without a permanent record and preservation of memories in the minds of people, we will be obsolete at some point after our deaths (30, 100, 500 years, whatever). Cue the existential angst!

    Point being, here was this Average Man, doing what he could to feel like his life means something to others, because others tell us something about ourselves (my Hell really is other people). And his own friends were making fun of him for it, diminishing his feelings, even though they do the same thing in different ways-probably in lesser ways, like accumulating money and getting social approval for object they own, rather than for sharing who they are.

    So, I say, write your memoirs. Leave some record of yourself. For what it’s worth, you’ve done the Liebovitz thing, only through teaching instead of photography. Every time I hear/read someone mention Derrida, I tell them, “Hey I had this professor who actually knew him! He isn’t forgotten.” And when people say, “Why the heck did you take so many philosophy classes? That junk is dead and irrelevant,” I say something like, “Phil 101 was the only elective with open seats my first semester, and I was scared to death. But I had this cool feminist woman professor who inspired me to keep trying and I learned to love that ‘junk’ and it’s very relevant if studying it changed *my* life and how I treat others.”

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