About two years ago, at a time when my feelings of dissatisfaction with my job were growing intense and difficult to either ignore or deal with, a character emerged in a doodle. I had taken to bringing a sketchbook and doodling when I sat at a bar, say, or when I needed something to do with my brain that still gave it a rest from the analytical reading and processing that work drowned me in so much of the time.
We were out to dinner, and my partner was telling me a story about one of his co-workers, a person of a type most of us either are or can easily recognize: she was one of those people who sustained a running narrative of her thoughts, keeping my partner on the phone for long stretches of listening as she worked through a solution to a problem. In my sketchbook, as he talked, I drew the cartoon face of a pig, flattened, all circles and arcs. A very silly-looking caricature of a pig. I drew a speech-bubble issuing from the pig’s wide-smiling mouth. In it, I wrote: “She’s an external processor, Bret. Deal with it.”
When he’d finished telling me the story, I pushed the sketchbook toward him. The next time the pig-face and its commentary showed up in the book, I gave it a caption: “Reality Pig says . . .”. Thus, Reality Pig was born. Its mission: to appear whenever my complaints or resistance to the status quo of my life threatened to protest too strongly the immutable laws of the universe. Or so Reality Pig believed.
Maybe that puts too fine a point on it. Reality Pig’s role was deflationary. It called itself the voice of reality and laid claim to some authority, but it could only do so from the narrowest definition of what reality is. To me at that moment in my life, beginning to be aware of but not yet coming to terms with the toll my job was taking on me, the reality the Pig envisioned was an existence in which things had to remain exactly as they were. It was a world in which the individual (me), unhappy or outraged or despairing, had no agency, no means by which to change anything but her attitude. It was a bit bleak.
In fairness, I spent a good portion of the year that led up to the appearance of Reality Pig teaching Shakespeare’s King Lear in one of my classes, and if there were ever a piece of literature that took a dim view of the benevolence of the universe or the ability of humans to change their circumstances for the better, that’s it. Don’t get me wrong: I think the play is gorgeous and heartrending in all its crushing pessimism. (Spoken like a true English teacher, right?) Its apocalypse of resentment and injustice and failures of imagination resonates with the worst of what humans can be to each other. In that sense, it distills for us a truth about the world and ourselves, and in that, it is beautiful. But its glimpse of truth is partial, as any such view can only ever be. What King Lear says about being human is not what we’re doomed to, but what (among many things) we are capable of. Those are not at all the same thing.
I’ve come to think that, somehow, Reality Pig is a voice out of King Lear. Maybe it’s a form of one of the savage gods that the play refers to (“as flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods:/ they kill us for their sport,” 4.1.41–2), a wise but limited old voice of survival-at-all-costs that emerges when we are unable to imagine better options for ourselves. Reality Pig comes in when we can’t wrap our heads around a way of being in the world that is different and better than the way we are. And there are times when the hard, bare wisdom of the Pig is the best thing going. It’s not always possible to quit the job tomorrow, or to repair a relationship long gone wrong. The Pig’s clear-eyed counsel (“if you make cookies, you eat cookies. It’s not rocket-science”) is good for getting us through circumstances that, in the short term, we’re stuck with.
But although I think the voice of the character is kind of funny, I came to realize that Reality Pig was a sign of a life out of tune with itself. Barring truly dire circumstances, I don’t want to believe that I am — or that anyone is — doomed to live by the narrow precepts of Reality Pig’s universe. We should be able to believe that we can change things for ourselves. We shouldn’t have to feel trapped in a job or a relationship or a city or anything else that we have chosen. Having chosen something isn’t a life-sentence. We can allow ourselves to choose something else, as long as we are willing to take on the disruption and difficulty that even changes for the better can bring.
Reality Pig still makes me chuckle, but that smug pig-smile hasn’t appeared in the sketchbook for a while. I no longer needed to hear about its dismal reality when I realized I could change my life.
Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.