Viewpoint: Why short mantras shouldn’t define your life

Allie Matherne | Reporter
Allie Matherne | Reporter
Allie Matherne | Reporter

By Allie Matherne

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn all ask us to submit a “biography,” 140 characters to sum up our lives, who we are, what we’re apart of, etc. They reflect a culture that is shifting more and more toward putting ourselves into neat boxes. It’s the bumper sticker inclination: the need to sum ourselves up through vague or concrete truths. Whether it’s an organization that we belong to or a life mantra we feel connected to, we are forced create an image that we think people will remember.

The only thing greater than my frustration with this trend, is my inability to attach words to it. It was a frustration that went deeper than wanting people to be original.

Recently, I found it. I finally read it. The words were ripped from my scattered mind and eloquently placed in a book. It’s the most satisfying and frustrating experience. Satisfying because I knew someone got it, but frustrating because I didn’t think of it first.

“It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood,” said Sherwood Anderson, author of “Winesburg, Ohio.”

This is one of those topics that almost pains me to dig into. It’s much like poetry in that the beauty of it is in the unsaid. I’ve always loved poetry for its vagueness. I was the girl at the front of the literature class cringing at the snarky kid in the back exclaiming, “Why don’t poets just say what they mean?” I told him with my eye rolls that I was better than him. “The point of poetry is the interpretation, the alive-ness, the digging,” I would have said too, but you can only expect so much from an eye roll.

Attaching yourself to a mantra is the worst thing you can do in your life. The irony of that statement being that, yes, it is a mantra.

You can live for things, but not by them.

Setting yourself up to live by something is much like deciding to only write with pink pens for the rest of your life. It may be helpful for some things: it may make things prettier, it may suit your personal cultural standards, but it will not capture the fullness of life or the fullness of you.

There is a classic example among philosophers about the use of water. Ultimately, we all know what water is — we all understand its genetic makeup. However, if asked what water is, there is an exhaustive number of responses.

Water is in lakes, for drinking, for bathing and for mixing Koolaid.

Reality is too complex to be cut up into neat definitions. Instead of taking life as a systematic investigation into knowledge claims it would be more beneficial to live it.

Henry David Thoreau said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”

Thoreau doesn’t make bold, exhaustive claims about life. He just says he wants to live it and live it completely. That’s all we can do.

In summary, I have no “Internet bio” to exclaim because life is vague, so my “bio” for living life must likewise be vague. If I were to craft a biography to fit neatly into 140 characters, it would be a fragment of my aspirations and a shadow of what I’ve learned through others.

I’ve written enough things to realize that in two years I’ll look back and think “that was dumb” or “could’ve said that better.” There is absolutely no conceivable way to characterize my life in a phrase. It must be lived deliberately and “bios” will be created organically.

Allie Matherne is a junior public relations major from Lafayette, La. She is a reporter and a regular columnist for the Lariat.