“Do you think everyone has something to prove?” he asked.
A question containing two indefinite nouns. Everyone — who? Something — what? Nouns forming the blurry foundations upon which the question rests.
(He’s always asking questions like this. Questions that don’t move toward an argument derived from a few basic assumptions, but rather questions that cast doubt on those basic assumptions in the first place. Instead of “Where would you want to travel next?” he asks me, “Why do you like traveling?” Then I have to dig deep, fumble, try to explain why I breathe the air I breathe. He doesn’t ask, “What do you think everyone’s trying to prove?” He doesn’t define terms or parameters. He simply posits the query, fully punctuated and susceptible to strings of interpretation.)
In attempting to answer this question, I’ve had to break it down. Let’s presume Everyone is defined as Every Person in this World. Move on to Something. Start with the category of Things There Are to Prove. Worth, value, strength, intelligence, wealth, righteousness. Maybe Everyone is trying to prove that they are deserving of something, so there’s a new Something to be defined, a sub-category called Things to be Deserving of. Love, acceptance, a raise, faith, opportunities, material gifts, validation. Et cetera.
In predicate logic this question could be reworded as a statement that would be either true or false. It would go something like: “There exists a thing y such that Everyone in this World x has to prove it P(x,y).” (God, I hope there are no actual logicians or linguists reading this.)
Something I would have learned in my linguistics courses too is that the verb prove can take on a prepositional phrase to __z__, where z necessarily has to be another person or group of people. (I really hope there is no linguist x such that x is reading this post right now. I must certainly be getting this wrong.) Therefore, it is within the realm of real-world possibility that if someone has something to prove, they are trying to prove it to someone (which also includes themselves).
Now we have all the parts.
I propose that for each individual person x, the categories of Things to Prove and People to Prove Something to shrinks and expands according to his or her world view, the faces that orbit their life’s most defining moments, the forces that have shaped their identity. For example, if Phil was born with a physical or mental disability, he might spend his entire life proving that he can accomplish things despite his limitations. If Annie grew up with parents or teachers constantly telling her that she would amount to nothing, she might define her life as an ongoing quest to amount to something. The categories are endless, but structurally the same, because we define ourselves against them or in accordance with them, but never independently of them. For each person, the Things They Must Prove are evidence of all the things they have come to value.
To further illustrate: Imagine a group of friends gathered around a cliff that shadows a glorious pool of fresh water. A few individuals in the group, let’s say two boys named Chad and Dorian, make a running jump and, whooping and hollering, launch themselves off the edge of the dangerous cliff and plunge into the water below. Let’s assume (thought it may not necessarily be true) that these young men were trying to show off, to prove their own lack of fear or how big their dicks are or something. There is a certain element of toughness and courage, strands of masculinity (which itself is a system of values) that Chad and Dorian hold as necessary parts of their identity so much so that they must demonstrate it, prove it. This is inversely illustrated by the others in the group, who have hung back. They either do not hold the same values, or they don’t hold them strongly enough to feel the need to demonstrate them. What (if anything) we must prove in any given situation informs our values. Our values inform what we must prove.
The more existential interpretation of the question (the Phil and Annie version) imagines that we all spring into this world under a shadow of doubt. That, once we emerge as babbling, newly-formed members of the human species, something is already being held against us. The question holds as a basic assumption that we are already inadequate.
I’ve attempted to peel back the layers of the question, but I’m not really much closer to an answer. I suppose it’s easier to say yes, sure, we do all have something to prove, and leave it at that. But once we conclude that the question is really a statement of a universal truth, we must take a step back and realize that the statement is really a truth being framed in a certain way. The simple existence of this question indicates the basic assumption that the world does not have to be this way. The act of having to prove something, whether to someone else or to ourselves, is just that: an act. A voluntary one. And the need to perform this act is a symptom of a world that demands performance. I think the question itself presupposes — nay, mandates — the existence of a z, either an external or internal audience, hovering like a ghost around the edges of our decisions.
I will say only that the answer to the question lies in the variables.
On a hot summer day, we stood on a rock that rose above a glistening pool of water, surrounded by fascinated onlookers, all watching as a group of Chads and Dorians, whooping and hollering, took turns launching themselves off the edge of a cliff and plunging into the water below. Suddenly seized by something not of myself but not quite outside of myself, I turned to him and said that we should jump.
“I don’t have anything to prove,” he said, shrugging, eyeing the raucous, leaping, shirtless men.
I wonder what must have been going through his mind. In the context of our mediocre analysis, he might have cast as a basic assumption that those men, x, were such that they had something y to prove to someone z. He might have felt the need to differentiate himself from those men, to define himself against those men.
What he did not realize was that if he simply placed me as his z, he could step into my world perfectly formed, every inch of him no more no less; my world where those men did not exist, where basic assumptions did not exist, where we did not have to be anything more than what we were.
And so I stood, shivering, on the lowest possible ledge of the cliff, gripped with physical fear and looking down at the rippling unknown. I don’t have anything prove, he’d said. You don’t have to, I thought, and jumped, plunging deeper than I thought I would into the cold water, lungs filling with the thrill of abandonment; above me, the sunlight glinted and danced along the ripples I made on the surface.