Preterite vs. Imperfect and Viktor Frankl

When I was in college, I majored in both nursing and Spanish. I had always envisioned myself studying English or Creative Writing, but I was ultimately worried that I wouldn’t be able to make any money in those fields, and nursing seemed to offer more stable job prospects and fulfill this need I have to find purpose in my work and help other people. I quickly discovered that, although I loved nursing, the science and math were crushing my spirit. The Spanish literature classes engaged this other piece of my brain and filled up the places that science and math were leaving so neglected. 

Anyway, one of my challenges in both English and Spanish, is grammar. Particularly (in Spanish) the past tenses. To this day I struggle with deciding between when to use two of the past tenses: preterite and imperfect. It was explained to me by my high school Spanish teacher that preterite is the past as in a fixed moment in time; something has happened, it’s over and done. Imperfect was this idea of “I used to.” It happened over and over. Professor Google says that preterite is something with a definite ending, and imperfect is something that happened without a definitive beginning or ending. It happened, it might happen again, we’re just not sure. Preterite is specific, and imperfect is more general. When we were doing verb conjugations, in order to remember when to use which, she used to come up with these pneumonic devices, like a priest saying a prayer to remember the preterite conjugations or a sort of meditation pose to remember the imperfects. I can still see her doing those things in my head and it helps me sort and remember when to use what.

I was standing in line at Starbucks today when it came to me that I’m still struggling with the preterite vs. imperfect. Not just in Spanish (although that remains a very real challenge), but in my life. Right now I’m trying to figure out how I know if something is completely over and done in my life, finite and complete, or if it’s one of those things that “I used to do” or “I used to be” and I’m not anymore right now, but maybe one day I will be again. So much of identity is a fluid thing, and it’s made up of so many different pieces. You can be a daughter, a wife, a mother, a friend, a certain profession. Sometimes these roles are temporary and sometimes they are permanent, and sometimes they are somewhere in between and you just have to figure it out as you go. I hate that so much. I like order and predictability, structure. I’m a preterite kind of girl living in an imperfect world. 

Sometimes I get up in the morning, and I don’t recognize the life I’m living. I’ve spent so much of my life finding my identity in work for who I am. I’m a nurse, or I’m a nurse practitioner. It has been difficult for me to figure out who I am beyond that because that is the most tangible. I know I’ll always be someone’s daughter or mother or wife, but when people ask me what it is that I do, I feel like it defines more of me than anything else. For better or worse, that’s who I am. I recently had a change in my professional life, and I’m trying to figure out what it means and how it impacts my identity. I was talking to My Friend about it, and I said, “How do I reconcile what’s better for my family and my anxiety with this need my ego has to feel important and in control? And how do I know if the changes I’m making are permanent?” 

I so badly want to be satisfied and content and happy with where I am and learn to live in the moment, but it seems I’m constantly fighting the urge to be somewhere between Lot’s wife looking back, and some psychic with a crystal ball trying to predict the future. I keep looking to the next thing, and the next thing, convinced that when I just arrive at that perfect moment I’ll be content and settled, but it never fails that I get to that next moment and nothing has really changed. Except that I have changed. Every step I’ve made so far, for right or for wrong, has taught me something about myself and what I want. But what I’m ultimately afraid of is that I’m too broken to get better. That I’m too far gone to ever find contentment. That I’ll never be as happy or content now as I’ve been in the past because now I know too much and I can’t unlearn the things I’ve learned, and I can’t unsee the things I’ve seen. In many ways, it’s incredibly selfish of me to even seek out contentment and happiness knowing that so many others are losing their freedom, their livelihoods, their families at other places in the world, but here we are. 

I want to be the person who only cares about the happiness and success of others, who awakens each day content and thankful and grateful, but there’s just this nagging emptiness that won’t seem to be filled. Not by family or work or even (so far) prayer and spiritual endeavors. I can’t help but thinking that this emptiness is meant to teach me, is part of my spiritual journey. That the reason it hasn’t been filled is because it’s for my instruction. It’s just a path that I am meant to walk. And as I keep looking back over my shoulder in one breath, then looking forward in the next, I can’t help but notice that the grass is greener wherever my gaze happens to land in the given moment, which might change a hundred times in the course of the day. In short, I’m looking for my purpose, and it’s like the time my brother hid my grandma’s keys and she looked everywhere but couldn’t find them, and it was because he’d hidden them on top of the ceiling fan. Probably it’s there, I just haven’t figured out where to look yet.

In the midst of all this soul-searching, this week I was finishing Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. I think everyone should have to read it at least once in their life. Probably more than that because It’s too much to digest all at once. The book opens with descriptions of the suffering he experienced himself as a Jewish psychiatrist imprisoned in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. It’s a humbling experience to read it because, in comparison to the life he lived, everything I’ve experienced so far is the equivalent of a big white scuff on my shiny black patent leather Mary Janes. Perspective is an important teacher. Anyway, because of his proximity to so much human suffering, and his observance of the resilience or demise in the context of that suffering, he has an enlightening view of how we press on and move forward when we have no idea how to find significance in our day to day lives. What he noticed was that hope was the factor that most impacted a person’s will to live and survive and thrive, and he posits that a man’s primary motivational force in life is the find meaning. (Which means maybe I’m not the most selfish person on the planet, I’m just like everyone else?)

He discusses this idea of a provisional existence, where there seems to be no end in sight to a stage of life, and says, “A man who was not able to see the end of his provisional existence was not able to aim at an ultimate goal in life. He ceased living for the future, in contrast to a man in normal life.” He goes on to say, “It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future…and this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.” For a man to lose hope in the future would be, in his opinion, near fatal. The key, according to Frankl, is for each person to be able to find hope. To find purpose in one of three places: in work, in love, and in suffering. In other words, meaning could be found in serving others through meaningful work, loving others, or choosing to view one’s suffering as his purpose. Discovering that “why” allowed him to bear with almost any “how.” One of the most profound ideas in the book (in my opinion) is this piece of advice he gives: “Live as if you were already living for the second time and as if you had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” He says in looking back, we store and treasure everything— every experience, every relationship, every suffering, every deed— and can use these as assets from the past that no one can ever take from us, regardless of our future endeavors. This is exactly where I’ve been. Looking to the future for motivation to keep going, but looking over my shoulder to the past to protect and hold the value of where I’ve been. All the preterite, over with, done and gone, and all the imperfect I used to be and maybe will be again. This is the way to make sure nothing is wasted, not a moment of the past, and not a moment of the future.

In talking to My Crazy Lady about all this, we discussed the importance of being present. About how Psalm 46 says, “Be still and know that I am God,” and that maybe the point is to just be present here, in this moment, in this space. But while her understanding of the verse was a kind and benevolent old man stroking his daughter’s hair and peacefully whispering, “Be still,” mine was of my mom trying to put my hair in a pony tail when I was little girl and I was squirming all over the place and making it so hard for her to finish something that was seemingly so simple, and then tapping me on the head (tapping is a euphemism here for sure) with the hair brush and almost shouting “Be still!” My Crazy Lady sees, “be still” as an opportunity for rest while I see it as a punishment. But I think she’s right. 

And so, for now, I have to stop trying to figure out what’s permanently over, and what’s on pause, and just take each moment as it comes. And maybe, if I learn to stand there long enough, the empty places will fill themselves up. Until then, if you need me, I’ll be treasuring the past, keeping my eye on the future, and trying to stop squirming before someone hits me in the head with a hairbrush.

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