There can be few treats greater than watching shooting stars streak across the sky. But craning one’s neck in the small hours while waiting for a momentary glimpse of a meteor has its down side. Forget the cold, the neck ache next day and the fact that this August we saw none, the search brought back memories of one of my childhood nightmares. Facing the immensity of the universe made me feel tiny and inconsequential. It is that feeling that returns now when I stare at the Milky Way.

What with the unease posed by our galaxy, together with our countless more everyday struggles, it is remarkable that we human beings can ever be happy, but that is what we often are. Hoping to understand more and to improve my lot, around thirty years ago I wrote a list of my key prerequisites for happiness. I defined six – I would need to have autonomy, influence and adequate creature comforts (food, warmth etc), and to be healthy, feel wanted and be recognised. Some of those priorities have now changed; my need for having influence would no longer make the six. ‘Being recognised’, however, has become more important. The recognition I want is a reminder, a reassurance, that tells me that I exist and that I am a functional part of the human race. The thought of being completely ignored by others, or treated by them as invisible or irrelevant, would be wretched.

Such recognition can come from anybody and in all ‘shapes and sizes’. It’s not necessarily about my being given information or being asked a question. It could be a nod, a smile, a ‘good morning’, or as minimalist as the raising of an index finger as our one-time, grumpy, farmer neighbour would do when he drove past in his tractor. In all this, being recognised by an outsider seems to be particularly reassuring.

I am bothering to write about the importance of having one’s existence recognised because it is the only explanation I have for an incident that occurred recently when I was out shopping and which touched me greatly. Many people might see the event as trivial, but the fact that it had me puzzling for days afterwards means that, at least for me, what happened was important.

I was in our local supermarket looking for ripe avocados. I started whistling the tune of ‘Brave Margot’, a song written by Georges Brassens in 1953 and which is well known in France, particularly amongst those of my generation. Its melody is catchy and its lyrics, I have just discovered, risqué. A young women adopts a stray kitten and the men in the village come to ogle each day when it gets breast fed. Soon the other women of the village become angry and take revenge!

After whistling the introductory bars, I stopped for a breather only to hear the tune taken up and continued by someone out-of-sight in the neighbouring aisle. After a few moments the mystery whistler stopped and I started up and again where he, or was it a she, had left off. Next, it was my turn to stop and the unknown whistler started up again. Suddenly the tune was coming from just a few yards behind me and I turned to see the mystery songbird, a man in his early forties with a smiley face and twinkling eyes but with little else that might bring him to one’s attention. This complete stranger was slim, balding and bewhiskered, and his dress appearing more determined by need than style.

I had had no idea who to expect but it didn’t matter, for those few moments we two members of the human race were as one. The event was unprompted, no words were exchanged and we will probably never see each other again, but the deed was done. By dint of a few interchanged notes, an exchange that served no material purpose meant that we had recognised each other’s existence.

For me, that moment of my being noticed, of being reminded of my existence in the universe in this way, was extraordinarily moving. In trying to work out what was going on, my position is somewhat akin to Sartre’s view – It is other people who validate, influence and even shape our existence. Where we differ is that whereas Sartre sees others as hellish, I see them as potentially benign and positive. With outside influence being so crucial, it is easy to see why my experience at the supermarket had such a powerful effect. Moreover, being noticed in this way left me happy for days – a perfect antidote to the Milky Way dilemma.


14 thoughts on “Sartre had an Answer

  1. Whistling… so few people do it nowadays! Glad you do Joe. I do it in the basement of the car park of Waitrose, Dorchester: terrific acoustics. My neighbour’s father does it, when mending anything. My Mum did it while gardening, so did Iris Murdoch. Workmen in the street used to – but rather like the cuckoo it’s ages since I heard one – but unlike them I make a point of being tuneful. In fact that’s the joy of whistling for me – I whistle more loudly than I sing… Have you noticed that there is such a thing as a good whistling day? Nothing to do with mood – but atmospheric pressure or something I suspect; don’t know; but good to take full advantage of it if you wake up to one.


  2. Dear Merrily, With all your whistling insight, may I ask you a question? Following some fairly damning criticism of my whistling I sought help to improve, but to no avail. A friend who taught at a London music college knew no-one; nothing could be found on the net, and the local music shop that offered teaching in everything let me down too. So, are you in a position to give me names? Love, Joe


  3. I agree Joe, to be acknowledged is very important… but I would prefer a smile, nod of the head or wave.

    My brother whistles when he is concentrating on fixing issues thing, I have to leave the room as it tends to irritate me and indicates his need not to be interrupted or engage in small talk. Luckily, he whistles in tune unlike many others!


  4. Dear Carolyn, I suspect that there are always reasons for whistling, sometimes known, sometimes a mystery. Anna, in the ‘King and I’ sings ‘Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head up high and whistle a happy tune, so no one knows I’m afraid’. By the way, I get the message and am trying to find a teacher (see my reply to Merrily). Love, Joe


    1. Though I fear I am in the same camp as Carolyn on this subject, you might enquire at the 391 bus depot near you… Earlier this summer (in fact on my way to meet up with you in Chiswick) I found myself on a 391 bus in a torrential rainstorm. when my fellow passengers and I were treated to some virtuosic whistling by the driver. It was early summer, the rain was clattering on the roof of the single decker, and the traffic on Kew Bridge was jammed solid. After a few minutes of going nowhere the bus driver suddenly started whistling ‘Summertime’  – and not just any old rendition, but a very soulful jazz version of the blues classic. Of course we all laughed at the irony a of his choice and then, when he had finished, applauded his virtuosity. He then treated us to a few further numbers on a similar theme until the traffic magically cleared and he had to stop (presumably under the TFL rule “the driver is not to whistle while the bus is in motion.”) If you could track this maestro down I am sure he would make a brilliant teacher!


  5. Dear Robert, I like your distinction between ‘recognised’ and ‘really recognised’. I am not sure what Sartre would have made of that. I wonder if the two have slightly different meanings? More please. Joe


  6. (Message sent to me directly Joe Collier)
    Dear Joe Did you mean to post a photograph of a cardigan? Or has your blog page been hijacked and it is spam or something sinister? I’ve read your recent post – I liked it. I will comment and share my own small anecdote. Love Andrea


    1. Dear Andrea, I made a howler. I was preparing the picture of the cardigan for my next blog and, by clicking on the wrong button, posted it now instead. Sorry to you and to many others. It has caused much confusion.
      I look forward to your comments on ‘Sartre had an answer’ in due course. Joe


  7. It makes me think that while out shopping it’s normally passive non-recognition. But sometimes there is active non-recognition as in when a (usually very young) sales assistant does not show any recognition, including no eye contact, throughout a transaction. That is horrible.
    Once I was in the supermarket singing to myself, not really aware I was doing it. A woman came up to me and said “Is that Martha’s Harbour?”, which is what I was singing. It’s not just the singing or whistling but that the other person recognises the tune. And don’t think it would have happened if I had been singing something that was very popular and widely known. So it’s something that makes someone want to identify with some undefined subgroup.


  8. Dear Andrea, I agree, in this recognition business there is a component of establishing sameness. But there is more – this sameness seems to offer strength to the two parties. I understand that, on entering an underground train, women will acknowledge one another’s presence with a smile or some other sign. Such an acknowledgement gives a feeling of kinship and with it the notion of support if needs be. Yours, Joe


  9. My wife’s clarinet professor at Guildhall was apt to require his students to put down their instruments and whistle any particular piece they were struggling with. This instantly struck fear into their hearts, as it is very difficult for even pitch-perfect musicians to whistle consistently in tune. What chance then do ordinary tone deaf mortals who one might meet in Waitrose stand? In my experience, none whatsoever, even if The Queen of The Night is an otherwise admirable challenge. Some folks find out of tune singing or whisting so excruciating that they would be moved to complain, though, as you know, not me :)) Like most things in life, recognition has its negative aspects too!


    1. Dear Al, I don’t understand the point you are trying to make. Clearly my whistling was good enough to be recognised and shared by a stranger. You might like to read my response to Merrily Harpur. Yours, Joe


      1. On this occasion you found a kindred spirit who responded to your whisting in a positive way – by joining in and that is what I would call positive recognition. On another occasion, another person might find whistling an unwarranted intrusion and ask you to stop. This is what I’d call negative recognition. Whistling in public is a form of busking (albeit not seeking financial gain) and not everybody responds well to it, as per the woman who was very blunt with you on a previous occasion, I recall.


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