Last week I stole my neighbor’s Sunday paper.
There it was, laying on the front porch in a plastic wrapper, Apt. #1 clearly emblazoned on the front in black Sharpie. I thought about the home and travel sections, about the opinion pages – about the delectable Sunday crosswords. I looked around surreptitiously, then, as nonchalantly as possible, I picked it up and carried it into my apartment. I felt both guilt and a kleptomaniac thrill as I prepared to relax with a cup of coffee and the news.
You should know this: it was Thursday afternoon. The paper had been there, untouched, for days.
In the movie, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, the animated bombshell, Jessica Rabbit, famously declares, “I’m not bad, I’m just drawn that way.” I, on the other hand, am neither bad nor was I drawn that way.
Early on, there was the possibility of badness.
In a family of six children, it was easy to give in to the temptation to lie, for example. There were always five other suspects. And I could be devious when it came to self-preservation. One day I decided to practice my cursive “J” by writing it repeatedly on the pantry walls. In a stroke of childish genius, I carefully penned my brother, Jeff’s, name twenty-five times.
I had a fascination with fire, and an incipient arsonist lived in my pre-teen heart. She died very quickly, though, the first time I decided to play with matches. Against all admonitions, I secreted a book of matches in my pocket and headed to the bathroom – the only door I could get behind and lock. Unfortunately, I hadn’t thought to bring anything to light on fire. The fact that toilet paper burns in a rapid flash scared me straight. That I was prescient enough to light it over the toilet so it could easily be extinguished saved my backside from feeling the results of parental wrath.
So, despite my mother’s predictions to the contrary, I grew up treading the straight and narrow. A rules follower. Guided by social mores, a signatory to the social contract, I spent much of my life obeying and defending community norms.
Then, sometime in my mid-40s it hit me. I wasn’t bad, but my life was. I googled “bad” and found this definition which seemed to describe the life I was leading: not such as to be hoped for or desired; disagreeable; unfortunate; unfavorable; dreadful; awful; grim; distressing.
Alright, that may be an overstatement in the sense that my individuals days were not so horrible. But the feeling of my life slipping away from me not fully lived, the sense that I was somehow betraying myself, began to overwhelm my desire to continue on the path of social acceptability as defined by Good Morning America and women’s magazines.
In existential philosophy, Jean Paul Sartre coined the term “bad faith” to mean the phenomenon where a human being under pressure from societal forces adopts false values and disowns their innate freedom to act authentically. The resulting experience for the individual is one of blame, resentment, and disavowal of personal responsibility for choices.
In her book “The Work of Craft”, Carla Needleman explains this concept in a more emotionally accessible way, stating:
“And each one of us has made, early in his life, a “bad bargain”, has given up a large chunk of his openness, different for different people, in order to get by with a minimum of pain. This “bad bargain” forms, or to put it more strongly, is our predominant attitude.”
For me, whose persona, personally and professionally, was firmly staked to the concepts of meaning, purpose, and authenticity, it was difficult to come to terms with the idea that I had been acting in bad faith in my own life. It was small comfort to think that each of us may do so in some way.
Needleman goes on to pose what became, for me, a burning question. How can we get past “an unconsciously constructed barricade and plant in the deepest part a new growth that can find its way to the light?”
Taking back one’s innate freedom to act authentically is a difficult task. It reminds me of the feeling I had when, at 20, I went to a small town in Wyoming for a job interview. I had never spent time in the great open spaces of the west, having grown up along the verdant bluffs of the Mississippi River. In Wyoming, I couldn’t shake the sense of being watched. The lack of sheltering trees and structures felt alien, too open, too many opportunities to be seen. Determining to live authentically feels that way: out in the open with no one but myself to blame for each day’s choices and decisions.