This is a tribute to one of my literary heroes, Joan Didion. I could never eclipse her seminal essay “Self-Respect: Its Source, Its Power”. But I have sought to provide my own anecdotal perspective on this elusive trait, in what might hopefully be deemed a homage to Didion. I include some of her quotes from that piece.
Respect for oneself transcends the traditional constitution of a virtue in the eyes of society. The omnipotent, omniscient Self observes everything through the prism of one’s consciousness. It cannot be deceived by appearances, facades or comforting narratives. This transcendent element discards any of the superficiality or ulterior motives that often accompanies more deceptive social virtue signalling that permeates our culture today.
Self-respect is an end in and of itself. It is the embodiment of Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. One does not seek self-respect as a means to a better job, to impress an acquaintance or to enhance one’s social status. It is not recorded in the executive summary of a CV. Instead, its evidence emerges in the reflection in the mirror during our habitual nightly routines.
Am I aligned with myself? It is an odd question, for it implies that there is the possibility of a dichotomy between two things — unusually, within oneself. Maybe this dualism refers to the self of the ego and what the Hindus refer to as the ‘Atman’; or the higher Self. It seems futile that a mere capitalisation of a letter can represent such a divergence in the experience of one’s life. Perhaps it is a subtle acknowledgment that our finite language cannot capture the full essence of the infinite world we somehow occupy.
“Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception” — Joan Didion
The veracity of this elusive Self seems to be vindicated by the feedback loop of self-satisfaction that comes from this so-called ‘alignment’. We do not need the skills of an investigative journalist to uncover self-deception within ourselves. It presents itself voluntarily, without a conscious effort on our part. Self-deception may be the most pernicious form of fraud, because we can often continue to prosper and benefit in the “real world” while we stray further and further from this internal regulatory system. Like two train tracks a degree off parallel, the disparity only becomes evident over a longer span of time.
We laugh when someone claims to have “found themselves” or to be “born again” but there may be truth amidst their hubris. This re-finding of oneself suggests that, in the beginning, we emerged from our mother’s womb in a perfect state of alignment before conditioning and self-consciousness took hold. As such, this process is an act of remembering who we once were. Paradoxically, it involves addition through subtraction.
“I had somehow thought myself a kind of academic Raskolnikov, curiously exempt from the cause-effect relationships that hampered others” — Joan Didion
Self-respect is purely egalitarian. It does not discriminate against or preference any one social class, occupation, race, sex or gender. When the janitor at NASA was asked what he does for a living, he said that he was helping put a man on the moon. Self-respect for one’s intrinsic value — no matter what monetary price “the free market” deems worthy of the effort — demands taking responsibility for one’s place in the world. As such, it becomes an act of courage.
“In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues” — Joan Didion
It seems that in the chaotic and uncertain times of 2020, we need more political and thought leaders with a strong measure of what was once called “character”. In addition to improving our institutions, we must not forget that institutions are comprised of individual human beings. Cultural and societal changes tend to occur organically from the ground-up, rather than the top-down. A society that prioritises and rewards self-respect — the fountain from which all other virtues spring — as an end in and of itself is one that will be equipped to deal with the ever-evolving and unpredictable world we find ourselves in.