by Jeff Helgeson
The windows across the room were dark. Don Stryker could see himself in them, surrounded by light coming from a chrome-plated lamp above his head, his reflection abruptly blocked by a white stone gargoyle his wife had bought and set at a carefully chosen angle among some leafy plants she had arranged along a freshly painted sill.
He was sitting on the sofa, his left arm stretched out in front of a line of books along a shelf behind him. The house was quiet. Joan and the children were asleep.
Don glanced down for a moment at the book that lay against his legs, the fingers of his left hand fanning out across its tightly printed pages.
“As for the inner negation for myself of the truth,” he read, “this rests on words: that is, on an event within the world.”
Don moved his eyes away from the page to gaze instead at the corner of the woven, rattan trunk that served as a coffee table in front of the couch.
‘Sartre was dead,’ he thought, ‘no reason to read him now.’
Don turned a page with the tips of his fingers and skimmed over the darkly underlined words: “In bad faith it is from myself that I am hiding the truth.”
After a moment, he lifted his gaze once more and drew his arm from the back of the sofa.
Don had always been intrigued by questions of conscience, enjoying the process of thinking through the nuances of personal and social morality, and he had also always found his own very intricate ways of dealing with them both. He was a great compromiser and could easily rationalize virtually any action. On Sundays as a boy, he had always agonized over the small paper envelopes in his pants pocket, touching them with the tips of his delicate, well-cleaned fingers over and over as he had walked, the sound of deeply-ribbed corduroy accompanying each step, and then, finally, once he had turned onto the tree-lined sidewalk at Dickens Street, the church steeple rising above the leaves at its far end with an old corner candy store directly at its center, he would stop, look cautiously in both directions over his narrowly boyish shoulders, lift the stiff paper collection envelope from his pocket, and tear it open, sometimes carefully, and, sometimes, with a flourish. He would look down at the brightly silver coins as they fell into his out-stretched palm, and he would then press them deeply into his front pants pocket and tear the envelop, stooping to drop the scraps of paper through the grill of a sewer cover next to the curbing at the corner and watching as they scattered across his reflection in the stagnant water below.
The money was intended to be given to the poor, his mother had told him. It was meant for people who had no money of their own. “That is a noble duty,” his father had added from behind the out folded pages of the Sunday Tribune before Don had begun his six block walk to church. “It’s a duty that everyone owes to those who are less fortunate than themselves,” his father had added and casually rustled the pages.
Don had thought about that as he had walked.
‘The poor’ . . . ‘those unfortunate people who had no money of their own.’
He was poor.
His hands had trembled when the thought occurred to him.
“Charity begins at home,” he remembered his mother had often said.
Charity began at home; he was poor; this money was meant for the poor; it had come from his home, and, in that case, the money was intended for him, and, then, he had a moral responsibility to share what he had with others who were even less fortunate than himself.
Once the problem had been solved, Don had smiled broadly and hurried on his way. Each week, he had spent all of his money on candy – Hershey Bars and Three Musketeers and long strips of paper that were covered with neat rows of pink and yellow, hard candy dots – and then he had shared, passing out his wealth freely, and in secret, while from somewhere in front of him, older voices had spoken about charity, about concern for the well-being of others, about loaves and fishes and the meek who would one day inherit the Earth, and, from around him, soft, hollow-throated coughs had covered the sound of tearing cellophane.
Don closed the book, setting it on the edge of the trunk.
“The consciousness of being is the being of consciousness,” he quoted and leaned back against the sofa.
‘The being of conscience is the consciousness of self,’ he thought, and then wondered
what Sartre might have said.
Still, Don had other things to concern him.
He was restless and uneasy.
Teaching “An Introduction to Contemporary Thought” course to eighteen year olds was hardly what he had hoped he’d being doing by this point in his life.
Looking around him, the books along the walls, the windows and the plants, and even that blasted gargoyle staring back at him all reminded him of the decisions that he had made, that had brought him to exactly where he was sitting. They were the links in a chain that he had made for himself without ever knowing what it was that he had been doing.
“Don?” Joan’s voice sounded in a velvet-lined, sleepy tone from somewhere in the gloom behind him.
Don dropped his eyes from the window and reached out for his book.
“I’m reading,” he answered. “I’ll be coming up in a little while.”
He flipped through several pages and stopped at random, only briefly glancing down at the words in front of him.
“ . . . the champion of sincerity is not . . . “ he read, and his eyes skipped up and over several lines of text. “He understands ‘not-being’ in the sense of ‘not-being-in-itself.’ He is in bad faith.”
Don could hear water running in the bathroom, and then the toilet flushed.
“You should probably come to bed soon, honey,” Joan said from out of the darkness as the sudden rush of water subsided. “Tomorrow’s Sunday; you can finish what you’re doing in the morning before we take the kids to church.”
Don shut the book and held it tightly in his hands, his reflection darkly glaring through the glass on the other side of the room, and, suddenly, he remembered the day that he had reasoned that no reason to say “no” was reason enough to say “yes,” that comfort and compatibility and a job teaching in his area of interest were all that he wanted, all that he felt it would take to make and keep him happy.
It had been on a Sunday morning, and the streets had been empty. He had been going to see Joan, and, together, they had planned to speak to her parents. His dissertation had finally been accepted, and he had been given a job offer to start teaching in the fall. There was nothing more to worry about, he thought. Joan was pleasant enough, and he felt relatively certain that they would be able to get along. There was no reason to avoid being with her, and, then too, the idea of a home and a family of his own had always been something he had felt that he would one day want.
“I truly love your daughter,” he had decided he would say. “I love her, and I want to be with her,” he had planned on continuing. And it was true, he had convinced himself – true enough, anyway.
Don stood and stepped away from the sofa, automatically adjusting his angle to avoid the low coffee table-trunk, and then he reached up to switch off the light before making his way through the darkness to bed.
Joan was pleasant, good natured, and easy enough to get along with, he thought and turned away from the windows as the light blinked out around him. He loved both of the girls; he was up for tenure, and some of his articles were at least being published.
He stepped through the doorway into the hall and began to slowly climb the softly carpeted stairs.
The notion of ‘bad faith,’ he decided he would tell his freshmen philosophy class on Monday, was nothing more than an elaborate rationalization. Sartre’s duality of the deceiver and the deceived was immaterial, he would say. There was no such thing as a lie to one’s self, he would tell them. There was no such thing as ‘bad faith.’