An Existentialist children’s story, aiming to explain the ideas behind Sartre’s Being and Nothingness to an audience of under-sixes. Why the hell not?
Why is mummy so sad?
One day, Simone and her mummy were getting ready to go to bed. It had been a very busy day indeed.
Simone and her mummy had gone into town to do some shopping. Simone’s mummy had bought a new dress and they had bought a pretty hat for Simone. But even after such a busy day, Simone wasn’t tired. Not one bit.
Instead, Simone wanted to play with her toys.
“Please let’s play for a while, mummy,” said Simone, “look, I’ll play at being the daughter and you can play at being the mummy.”
Suddenly Simone’s mummy looked very sad indeed.
Simone saw that her mummy looked sad and so she said, “It’s okay, mummy, don’t be sad. If you don’t want to be the mummy, you can always choose to be someone else.”
That made Simone’s mummy look even sadder still.
“I think that you should go to bed now, Simone,” said her mummy, looking at the floor.
So Simone went to bed. As she was falling asleep she wondered, “Why is mummy so sad?”
That night, a funny little man visited Simone in her dreams.
Simone couldn’t remember the last time that she had seen anybody who looked quite so unusual. He had very strange eyes and a very strange walk, and he smelled of coffee and smoke.
“Hello,” she said, “my name’s Simone. What’s yours?”
“My name is Jean-Paul,” said the man.
He must be very important, thought Simone. I’ve never met anybody with two names before.
Simone then had a very clever idea: maybe this man could help with her question!
“Jean-Paul,” she asked, “do you know why my mummy is so sad?”
“Maybe I can show you,” said Jean-Paul.
Suddenly, they were both in the café that Simone and her mummy had visited earlier that day.
“Look at that man.” said Jean-Paul, pointing at the waiter, “What do you see?”
Simone looked at the waiter. He was balancing a tray full of drinks on one hand and expertly moving between the tables.
“I see a waiter,” said Simone. She was beginning to think that this man might not be so clever after all.
“Ah ha!” said Jean-Paul, “I see a man pretending to be a waiter!”
Simone looked confused.
“I’ll explain.” said Jean-Paul. “Look at that table. It is a table in every way it can be. It doesn’t have a choice in the matter, it just is.”
Simone thought about this for a moment and nodded; after all, she couldn’t imagine a table choosing to do anything!
“Now look at the waiter again,” Jean-Paul continued, “he’s trying to be a waiter in the same way that the table is a table.”
“Well that’s silly!” said Simone. “The table doesn’t choose whether to be a table or not! It’s just a table.”
“Exactly!” said Jean-Paul. “At the heart of the table’s being is being a table. Do you know what’s at the heart of the waiter’s being?”
Simone thought about this. “Well,” she said, “it’s not being a waiter. He’s only choosing to do that…”
“Go on,” said Jean-Paul, with a nod of encouragement.
“…and If he’s choosing to be a waiter, I suppose he could choose to be something else.”
“Yes!” cried Jean-Paul. “Now what do you suppose would be at the heart of a thing which could choose to be anything at all?”
Simone thought very hard about this.
“If you aren’t anything without choosing to be it,” she said after a while, “then there’s nothing left to be.”
“That’s right!” laughed Jean-Paul, clapping his hands and doing a funny dance. “The heart of our being is nothing at all!”
Simone didn’t understand.
“I know that it sounds strange,” Jean-Paul continued, “but with nothing at the heart of our being, we’re free to be anything we choose!”
“So why does he pretend to be a waiter?” Simone asked.
“It’s because he’s scared.” Jean-Paul replied, with a sad shake of his head. “He doesn’t like the idea that he is so free, free to do and be whatever he wants, so he ignores his freedom and pretends to be a thing, not a person.”
“Come, let’s leave the waiter here. There’s someone else I’d like you to meet.”
Simone took Jean-Paul’s hand and they left the cafe.
As soon as they stepped outside, everything changed. This took Simone by surprise: she was so determined to find out why her mummy was so sad that she had quite forgotten that she was dreaming. As quick as a flash, they were back in the shop where Simone’s mummy had brought her new dress.
Simone saw a mother and daughter looking at all the nice clothes. The daughter was holding a dress and impatiently tugging at her mother’s arm. Simone felt glad that she was never that badly behaved.
“Look closely.” Said Jean-Paul.
They watched as the lady moved through the shop, paying no attention to her daughter, no matter how much she begged for the dress.
“This lady is different from the waiter – look – not only is she paying no attention to her daughter, she’s also paying no attention to herself. She doesn’t want to have to disappoint her daughter by saying no, nor does she want to have to spend a lot of money by saying yes.”
Simone looked at the lady. She had a faraway look in her eyes and didn’t seem to notice anything at all.
“In order to avoid making the decision,” Jean-Paul continued, “she’s choosing to ignore her body completely – she wants to pretend that it’s not there at all, that she’s just her mind!”
Simone was beginning to understand.
“So she’s being a bit like the waiter?” She asked.
“That’s right, Simone!” Jean-Paul said with a smile. “She’s being just like the waiter, only opposite!”
“Because she’s ignoring her body and the waiter was ignoring his mind?”
“Exactly right!” Jean-Paul laughed. “You are a very clever girl!”
“That’s very nice of you to say, Jean-Paul, but I still don’t understand why my mummy looked so sad.”
“Well,” said Jean-Paul, squinting into the distance, “like everyone else, your mummy is frightened by all the freedom that she has.”
“But why?” asked Simone, who was puzzled indeed. “Isn’t it good to be free?”
Jean-Paul chuckled and patted her on the head.
“Of course it is. Freedom is everything that we have, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be frightening.”
All of a sudden, Simone and Jean-Paul were standing on top of the table in Simone’s dining room and, with a gasp of shock, Simone found that she was holding her mummy’s most expensive vase.
“I don’t like this Jean-Paul!” cried Simone. “I’m frightened that I’ll drop it. Please take it away.”
Jean-Paul nodded his head. “Yes, you might drop it by accident and that would be sad, wouldn’t it?”
Simone was too scared to answer
“But,” said Jean-Paul, “you might also throw it.”
Simone’s eyes went wide.
“No!” she shouted. “I’d never do that. I’m a good girl!”
“Ah,” said Jean-Paul, “but you could. You’re choosing to be good, but at any moment you could choose to be bad and smash the vase into a thousand pieces.”
“That’s why the waiter was afraid.” whispered Simone, after catching her breath. “He realised that he was free to do anything at all, even things that were really horrible.”
“That’s right.” said Jean-Paul, glad that Simone was starting to understand.
“So he pretended to be something that didn’t have that freedom, so he didn’t have to make that choice!”
“That’s exactly it.” said Jean-Paul, sitting in a big leather armchair that Simone hadn’t seen before. “But deep down he knows that he’s lying to himself. He’s acting in what I like to call ‘bad faith’.”
“So that’s what made my mummy so sad?”
“That’s right Simone. You reminded your mummy of all the freedom that she has.”
“And she felt the same kind of scared that I did when I realised I could smash this vase?”
“That’s right. I call it ‘anguish’.”
The word sounded strange to Simone, but she didn’t mind. She’d just thought of a brilliant plan!
“Wait!” she said. “If there’s bad faith, then there must be good faith as well! Learning to live in good faith would stop my mummy being so sad!”
“You’re quite right,” Jean-Paul said with a sad smile, “but that’s for another day.”
Simone blinked, and with that she sat bolt upright in her bed. It was morning and all the birds were singing.
Simone rushed downstairs to tell her mummy all about her dream, but dreams are funny things.
When she got into the kitchen, she had forgotten everything, apart from a strange little man with a strange little walk, who smelled like coffee and smoke.