“We are brought up in the ethic that others, any others, all others, are by definition more interesting than ourselves; taught to be diffident, just this side of self-effacing. Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout.”
– Joan Didion “On Keeping a Notebook”, 1966
I’ve felt particularly alienated and misanthropic in recent months so I actually laughed out loud today when, upon cracking this book open today, was immediately confronted with the above passage.
It’d be a gross understatement to say that boy, times sure have changed!
A collective, singular obsession with “self” is now the pervasive norm. Folks now essentially dedicate their entire existence to thinking about themselves, writing about themselves, talking about themselves, taking photos of themselves, updating their social media contacts about every last mundane detail of their lives, etc. The epidemic worsens daily with no stalling or backlash in sight. Self-help, self-love, self-acceptance, self-actualization, SELF SELF SELF SELF SELF SELF SELF SELF SELF SELF SELF SELF
What’s your passion – everyone’s got one of those now, right? Who are you? What makes you special? Because you’re definitely special! How are you unique? Please, tell me every fascinating thing that there is to know about you and when you’re done doing that – if you even can get done. I mean, is there even an end to how fucking fascinating you are? – start a blog about your fascinating life, take like ten more pictures of yourself making fascinating expressions and the fascinating food that you ate for breakfast and post the fascinating inspirational quote about being fascinating from a book you didn’t read because nobody reads anymore but that’s a different conversation for a different day. Next, hop onto Facebook and tell everyone there in painstaking detail about the fascinating Common Cold that you’re currently stricken with and how tired you are from completing the fascinating tasks in your fascinating daily life.
People don’t have conversations anymore; they just take turns saying things about themselves.
I’m particularly amazed at how wrong almost everyone gets it – like those super creepy close-up selfies that are everywhere I look. Or prattling on about your special dietary restrictions at the dinner table so much that any potentially legitimately interesting thing you may have to contribute to the subsequent conversation will fall on deaf ears. Everyone knocking each other out of the way to step into the spotlight, heads so far up their own asses that altruism in any form will soon become a sepia-tinged relic of the past, like children playing outside and Madonna’s relevancy.
I’m no social scientist (actually I’ve got $50,000+ in student loan debt that would argue to the contrary but that’s neither here nor there) but it seems that at the root of all this is loneliness. The Internet has cracked our world wide open, leaving everyone feeling small and invisible in this new sea of billions. We want to be loved so we look at ourselves from the point of view of a lover and curate an identity designed to point out all the parts of us that we imagine are most lovable. We think,
“If somebody loved me, they’d love my smile”
“If somebody loved me, they’d take care of me when I’m sick”
“If somebody loved me, they’d think it was charming and adorable that I drink Mocha Fraps with no whip, an extra shot, half soy/half whole milk twice a day”
“This incredibly close-up photo is what I’d look like, in bed, from the point of view of someone who loved me”
And while that stuff may actually be true, I just don’t think it works in reverse like that, boo. I may love that my best friend and I share an affinity for Doritos and Diet Coke but I’m not going to love you because you love Doritos and Diet Coke. Loving someone’s quirks comes after the relationship is already established. Wanting to care for someone when they’re ill or in need of help comes FROM love. It’s not a precursor, usually.
We’re all so attention starved, using the Internet to glean Likes and Favs and matches and followers and pageviews when, ironically, if we just looked up from our fucking phones for a hot second, we could probably get something much more substantial in the flesh. By reviving the dying art of agenda-free kindness. Relearning how to listen. Asking questions. Refraining from burdening others with our bullshit. Affecting absorption in other people’s trout.
Besides, there really isn’t any such thing as a Unique Individual. That’s just a capitalist myth. We’re all essentially the same, made up of the same stuff, fighting for the same survival with the same basic needs. While our personal histories may vary slightly, our culture is shared and love is primarily a tool for procreation and family/community building. It’s part of how we’ve succeeded as a species. On a more local level – you don’t have to have a passion or a special talent to be a valuable person. You don’t need a funky hairdoo or a weird food allergy to be noticed. You’ll stand out to the people you need to stand out to – biology takes care of most of that. Anything beyond it is superficial, self-indulgent gravy.