How Should a Person Be: a Quote


This weekend I raced through Sheila Heti’s book How Should a Person Be? This passage really struck home for me, and will serve as a daily challenge to the ever-present thought that I have to find my “one thing”, my one passion, and I’ll “never have to work a day in my life.”

“You remember the puer aeternus–the eternal child–Peter Pan–the boy who never grows up, who never becomes a man? Or it’s like in The Little Prince–when the prince asks the narrator to draw him a sheep. The narrator tries and tries again, but each time he fails to do it as well as he wishes. He believes himself to be a great artist and cannot understand why it’s not working. In a fit of frustration, he instead draws a box–something he can do well. When the prince asks how it’s a picture of a sheep, the narrator replies that it’s a picture of a sheep in a box. He is arrogantly proud of his solution and satisfied with his efforts. This response is typical of all peurs. Such people will suddenly tell you they have another plan, and they always do it the moment things start getting difficult. But it’s their everlasting switching that’s the dangerous thing, not what they choose.

Why is their everlasting switching dangerous?

Because people who live their lives this way can look forward to a single destiny, shared with others of this type–though such people do not believe they represent a type, but feel themselves distinguished from the common run of man, who they see as held down by the banal anchors of the world. But while others actually build a life in which things gain in meaning and significance, this is not true of the puer. Such a person inevitability looks back on life as it nears its end with a feeling of emptiness and sadness, aware of what they have built: nothing. In their quest for a life without failure, suffering, or doubt, that is what they achieve: a life empty of all those things that make a human life meaningful. And yet they started off believing themselves too special for this world!

But–and here is the hope–there is a solution for people of this type, and it’s perhaps not the solution that could have been predicted. The answer for them is to build on what they have begun and not abandon their plans as soon as things start getting difficult. They must work–without escaping into fantasies about being the person who worked. And I don’t mean work for its own sake, but they must choose work that begins and ends in a passion, a question that is gnawing at their guts, which is not to be avoided but must be realized and lived through the hard work and suffering that inevitably comes with the process.

They must reinforce and build on what is in their life already rather than always starting anew, hoping to find a situation without danger. Puers don’t need to check themselves into analysis. If that just remember this–It is their everlasting switching that is the dangerous thing, not what they choose–they might discover themselves saved. The problem is the puer ever anticipates loss, disappointment, and suffering–which they foresee at the end of every experience, so they cut themselves off at the beginning, retreating almost at once in order to protect themselves. In this way, they never give themselves to life–living in constant dread of the end. Reason, in this case, has taken too much from life.

They must give themselves completely to the experience! One thinks sometimes how much more alive such people would be if they suffered! If they can’t be happy, let them at least be unhappy–really, really unhappy for once, and then they might become truly human.”

Do you even believe in other worlds?”
“I find it a great effort to believe in this one,” said Sarima, “yet it seems to be here, so why should I trust my skepticism about other worlds? Don’t you believe?”
“I tried to, as a child,” said Elphie. “I made an effort. The mothy, gormless, indistinct sunrise of salvation world—the Other Land—I couldn’t get it, I couldn’t focus. Now I just think it’s our own lives that are hidden from us. The mystery—who is that person in the mirror—that’s shocking and unfathomable enough for me.

Gregory Maguire, Wicked

My conversations with friends have lately been along quite similar lines. Talking about the future, looking at our pasts, seeing where we’ve come from, wondering where we’re headed. All of this makes me so much more aware that despite my best efforts, I really have no idea where I will be in a year. Plans for further education (yes, even further), musings about relationships, worries about finances…all of this is ultimately beyond what I am capable of controlling. Of course, we do have a say about how our life turns out, to a certain degree. But in the end, more is out of our hands than in it. Two years ago I was freshly graduated from college with no future plans. Now I am halfway through my grad school program, living on the west coast, far away from (most of) the people I love. Of course, much is still the same—the same financial worries (will those ever leave? My heart and reason tell me “no”), the same wondering about relationships (I am a girl, after all), the same planning for my dream job. But through all of this, I am always reminded that it is best to take it one day at a time. Even on the most dull of days, where all I do is wake up, make coffee, do homework, go to class, and go back to sleep (which sounds like most days to me, as of late), I try to remember to just take each day on its own. Of course, my hopes and imagination get carried away and I get restless. But the fact of the matter is, it’s in the dullness of daily tasks where life happens. So many times I have looked back on my life and noticed how much has changed…and I didn’t even notice. Life goes on by itself, regardless of our impatience with it. So, rather than spending my free time imagining how I wish my life was, I need to be thankful for where my life is. Epicurus is the sage whispering in my ear the gentle reminder, “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” Life, change, movement—this is all happening while we go about our business. It is only when we look back that we can see how we’ve changed. 

“Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers…live the questions.” —Ranier Maria Rilke

“Did I just agree to dance with Mr. Darcy?”

“I daresay you will find him very amiable, Lizzie.”

“Twould be most inconvenient since I’ve sworn to loathe him for all eternity!”