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Didion's "On Self-Respect"
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This week I’m called monumentally self-involved. It’s also implied that I’m a bad friend. It stuns me. Not because I haven’t thought this about myself before. I have. It’s just surprising to hear it from someone else. I don’t respond to the accusation. In some ways, I am sure this is a confirmation. A few hours later, I walk to meet Mitchell for trivia in a daze. I ask him if he thinks I’m a bad friend. He jokes, no, sometimes I think you’re too attentive.
This cheers me up a little, but I’m still upset. So I volunteer to be the scribe for the team as a distraction. I don’t want to pout, to give myself that kind of self-indulgence in a group of strangers. All the bad selves I’ve been. Self-serious. Self-conscious. Self-indulgent. Self-involved. Self-obsessed.
On our team, I only know Mitchell. Naturally the others ask me questions. Sometimes I forget to ask them back. More evidence. I start to talk too much. I remember a friend telling me she wanted to avoid confronting some difficulties she experienced last month, so she was letting herself be self-involved as a distraction. What if that’s all it is? I have to take my mind off myself somehow. So I distract myself with myself.
Maddie tells me you don’t actually have to have self-respect. You just have to pretend you do. I guess the idea is that eventually you will earn it for yourself through the pantomime. An accidental echo of Didion’s essay “On Self-Respect.” That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth.
I return to the essay any time I’m questioning who I am after someone has told me who they think I am. The first time I read it was on loan from Hayes. He always carried in his backpack a Xeroxed copy folded into several small squares. I loved this. A little talisman of protection. I read it at age twenty and recognized myself in the disappointed nineteen year old Didion, fresh off a Phi Beta Kappa rejection. The spiral of that rejection, how it would prevent the good life she believed entrance into the fraternity promised. In the light of the window in my single dorm, I copied down whole paragraphs into my journal. I wanted the words would coax out that self-respect I knew I had not yet gained. I do this again tonight. A ritual, like Didion says, to remember who and what I am.
As I reread the essay, I’m wrestling with the line between self-involvement and self-respect. The kind of self-respect Didion describes doesn’t require self-sacrifice. It actually has very little to do with others and their approval. To free ourselves from the expectations of others, that’s the key to self-respect, so Didion says. This is the thing that will give us back to ourselves. Maddie also told me that you have to teach other people how to respect you by respecting yourself. I’m in knots. How do I untie my own self-respect from other people? Didion’s clarity is failing me. I copy down another passage, then write beside the paragraph: is it not the most self-respecting thing to be self-involved?
A man hits on me at karaoke in Ridgewood. I’m not in the mood to indulge him. We’re in a banquet room in a beer hall with about one hundred other people bouncing in their seats waiting for their names to be called. He comes onto me slowly. Casual, friendly at first, then more bold as we wait for our turns. After I sing “Video Games,” he compliments my performance. Yeah, I’m the guy sitting next to her, he says. I want to say only because there were no other empty tables. I don’t. The next day I talk about how much I wish I could be better at saying I’m not interested. It’s not an unkindness. But I can’t bring myself to do anything but endure. At the mercy of those we can’t help but hold in contempt, Didion’s sharp and clear voice rattles in my head.
I could tell the man is looking for someone. Anyone. It doesn’t matter that I’m me. I am a body in the shape of a woman that he finds appealing. I find this to be true of dating apps too. Who can be the vessel to distract me from my own loneliness? Avatars lacking selves. Tonight I read in Ava’s essay: I understand all the types of people you can meet at different parties and all the different forms of salvation they seek. The salvation someone else promises, the hope they will fill in what’s missing for you. What they never actually promised but you assume you will receive the promise. To be in thrall to someone else because you can’t see yourself wholly or at all.
this whole thread is worth reading, by the way.
God, I’m fucked up. Why am I always in the East Village? My good behavior on Tuesday night after lifting weights with Charlotte, one glass of wine at Maiden Lane on Avenue B, then home, back to Brooklyn to not sleep until 3 am, apparently justifies coming back to Avenue B a few nights later for a do-over. Several Manhattans. The rain won’t stop. A streak of lightning, then thunder, so close that I imagined someone had to be struck. The lightning surprises me so much I say, I have never seen lightning before. I mean since moving here. I can’t stop looking out the window waiting for it to strike again. It doesn’t, at least not as strongly. Later I see someone describe the rain tonight in New York as biblical.
It’s hard to move through the city when the weather is this bad. But I can’t bear to go home and face myself. Going home to look for yourself only to find all the lights off. No one’s home. When I do get back to my apartment, the woman who lives downstairs does scales all through the night. Who, ooh, ah, ooh. I hear it in my sleep, through the headphones playing fake rain even though there’s real rain outside. I’m in constant rain.
From Jeff Clark’s Music and Suicide: You have the right to demand recognition from the other. But you have no right to seek completion by means of the other. You will always be incomplete. (This is not a condemnation, but another way of saying the world cannot contain itself.)
Didion: We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others is an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give [...] No expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. [...] we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.
One Day at a Time in Al-Anon: How can I make myself aware that my own weak-kneed acceptance of an unacceptable situation is a reflection on my own self-respect? Is my long-suffering attitude going to achieve any good results? Today’s reminder: I am an individual with the right to a good life. I must not look to anyone else to make a good life for me; this I must do for myself.
I’m self-involved this weekend when I lie down on the floor as I sing karaoke at Planet Rose. I’m self-involved when I tell a Tinder match I’m illiterate because I didn’t pick up on his literary reference. He unmatches me. I’m self-involved when I tell someone I’ll be somewhere and then change my mind. I’m self-involved when I text someone all my problems. I’m self-involved when I stay all day in bed, wondering if anyone will miss me if I don’t show up. I’m self-involved when I write down what Gaby says—“there’s just something about a twenty-seven year old that’s hard for men to handle”—and plan to use it in an essay. I’m self-involved when I listen to the new boygenius song “$20” and think it was written explicitly for me. They’re right. There are so many hills to die on.
What’s obvious is that I don’t know what exactly it takes to be a good friend. Shouldn’t there be some formula so I don’t disappoint people anymore? I decide to ask around. A friend of mine said he could see a friend he hasn’t talked to in a year and still consider them to be his best friend. I agreed. This happens all the time. Em tells me: people hurt each other out of carelessness all the time, but doing it intentionally is a different story.
Carelessness. Maybe that’s the key. In “On Self-Respect,” Didion quotes Jordan Baker from The Great Gatsby when she says, “I hate careless people. It takes two to make an accident.” I don’t hate careless people. Maybe part of having friendships is accepting this carelessness is unavoidable. That we are always failing each other, that we have to accept that we are doomed to fail. Grace is in, Maddie texts me. If we give someone that grace to fail us, the only thing to hope for is that they will give it back to us. If they don’t, then you can’t fault yourself for walking away.
I call a different friend. We haven’t talked in weeks because of a misunderstanding between us. What went wrong was just an accumulation of disappointments. He’s in a different time zone. I thought of you because I’m in the East Village, I tell him. I’ve been upset. I’ll send you a picture of the beach, he offers. Are we okay, I ask him. Yes. And that he’ll be back in a week. I hang up the phone. There are some people you just can’t blame. And then I realize, I can’t blame anyone at all.
This is what I want. To have the courage of my mistakes. This is the only way I will come to accept responsibility for my own life. I am a bad friend and I will be a bad friend and I will be a good friend and I am a good friend. I let people down. Gaby replies to my string of texts, who doesn’t? I realize I am guilty of everything I’ve been accused of. Tell me I’m wrong. Tell me you’ll accept the kind of friend I can be when I can be. Tell me you understand my love.
I run through Clinton Hill. The same run I do when I can’t trust myself to not get lost. Mist spits in my face. I think to myself, have I ever been this lonely? The thought passes. I have, I will, I won’t be. Wind chaps my hand until they go red with cold. I can’t feel them anymore. I sprint a crosswalk as the numbers run out. A man spits without seeing me as I pass. We briefly grab each other and apologize. I laugh as I continue on. Another certainty comes to me as I make my way down Classon towards the parkway. I don’t want to picture myself inside anyone’s life except my own.