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Joan Didion on Self-Respect

Joan Didion captures, in her beautiful slender collection of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, the eternal truth that living authentically comes from releasing self-imposed deception, she says, “Innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself”. This quote is a isolated fragment from a masterpiece expressing our tendency to cling onto illusion, in order to protect our “innocence”, and once we strip ourselves, slowly and without preparation, from each delusion, one by one, we can approach the world without the cushion of idealisms and romanticisms. We can meet truth and answer the responsibility necessary for the hour. Victor Frankl wrote, “Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom.”

Failures of love, opportunities, jobs, and projects, live all throughout our memories, often jumping to consciousness randomly throughout the day, and our search for a life without regret, or error, or anxiety is a childish illusion; while I do not believe in the myth of being born into sin, I believe we cling to innocence for what it represents. The idea of innocence offers us hope for a life without pain. But life’s dualistic nature demands realism, life is suffering and love, life is pain and pleasure, life is anxiety and peace. After enough rejection letters, and emails, to discourage anyone attempting to make a life from a passion, I began to question the sanity behind writing 4, 6, and 8 hours a day when no one seemed to notice the effort. Being rejected required a strength that came from embracing my love for literature, intimately crafting a spiritual communion with writers that experienced the same fate, and learning to embrace the attempt as Sylvia Plath says, “I love my rejection slips. They show me I try.”

We will often not receive the love we seek, love will disappoint us and wound us, the job we believe we deserve often falls through, the wealth that we believe will make us happy will disappoint, and our ego never receives enough respect; however, coming to terms with the realization that life doesn’t revolve around our desires causes a paralysis that feel close to death. Also, the love we don’t seek will surprise us, and the job for us will come, and the wealth will create an opportunity to inspire people. The death of our ego is sometimes the stimuli that allows us to live. Joan describes the emotion of realizing life does not go as planned, and life takes us in directions beyond our comprehension perfectly when she writes:

The day that I did not make Phi Beta Kappa nonetheless marked the end of something, and innocence may well be the word for it. I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honor, and the love of a good man; lost a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale. To such doubtful amulets had my self-respect been pinned, and I faced myself that day with the nonplused apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire and has no crucifix at hand.”

“Writing is more than a notion”, James Baldwin’s mother said to him during his childhood; capturing the perseverance and strength and realism necessary to fulfill our dreams, Mrs. Baldwin, was attempting to prepare her son for the work required. Many people are delusion about the effort, trials, and failures that will challenge the honesty behind our statements that begin with “I want”; we cannot study or prepare ourselves for the difficulties set for us, but must ask ourselves, sincerely, if our “want” comes from the heart. As Marie Rainer Rilke writes:

“Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?

In this silent hour of the night we are forced to reflect on our consistency, tenacity, and creativity; having no familial literary background I began mimicking the work ethic of writers. While failure is apart of the process I wouldn’t let self-deception become one; as Joan writes, “Self deception remains the most difficult deception.”

Moving away from self-deception, and the lies we tell, allows us to analyze the actions, fears, and hesitations that rule our lives. Our ability to accept ourselves, entirely, every mistake, fear, and procrastination, and even the parts of ourselves that we will never tell the world, must be embraced, is the foundation for our self-respect. Joan captures the difficulty of allowing ourselves to live with the regrets of our past, and moving forward into a place of acceptance–she writes:

“To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness.”

Similar to self love, self-respect, is not eternal, but must be constantly, and daily, carved; our tendency to be self-deprecating must be released whenever the thoughts rise to our consciousness. As we acknowledge our mistakes we become responsible for our lives, and the habits necessary for our development reveal themselves. This responsibility leads us to value the people we can become, as Joan writes, “The willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life is the source from which self-respect springs.”

We pay a price for our lives. We are forced, through living, to discover the sacrifices necessary for becoming. We must learn to develop the small disciplines necessary to order our lives and move closer towards the people we want to become. Small disciplines prevents our desire to live a life of innocence from creeping over into the “work” necessary for maturation. Speaking about the importance of small disciplines Joan writes:

“Self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth. It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag. There is a similar case for all the small disciplines, unimportant in themselves; imagine maintaining any kind of swoon, commiserative or carnal, in a cold shower.

Closing the essay about the power of self-respect freeing us from the expectations of others, and allowing us to live authentically within our emotions and desires she writes:

“It is the phenomenon somethings called “alienation from self.” In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.”

Another beautiful essay, On Self Respect, contained in a beautiful slender book with wisdom that will stand the test of time Slouching Towards Bethlehem will be a book that I will always turn towards to be reminded on life’s beauty.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem