constellations #45: with all due respect
The other day a friend wondered on the phone if perhaps the conundrum in which she found herself was a question of self-respect. Or perhaps someone else had intimated that it was. I don’t remember the exact details. But I remember the comment made me pause because I found I couldn’t exactly agree or disagree. What does it mean for something to be a question of self-respect? I couldn’t really answer. I said as much.
But naturally the next day I sent my friend Joan Didion’s 1961 essay “On Self-Respect” and promised myself to re-read it. I first read it my senior year of college, after being assigned “The White Album” and “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” and maybe a few others, for a literary nonfiction class. I inhaled these essays. The way she wrote struck me as direct and measured; intellectual but not emotionless; invested yet coolly removed. It felt like it put a new order in my brain.
(It’s also true that I inhaled a couple more of her books over the years and found myself sometimes falling out of alignment with her perspective, but never out of admiration of her style.)
In terms of the meaning of self-respect, the essay sums it up pretty clearly: “In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character,” she writes. And “character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.” It feels more particular than self-image, more neutral than self-esteem, more old-school than self-actualization.
Or maybe it’s easier to understand via its opposite: “To do without self-respect, on the other hand,” she says, “is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable home movie that documents one's failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for each screening.”
(My mom brought up these these home movies to me the other day, asking, “Don’t you ever just get so caught up feeling embarrassed about some little random dumb thing you’ve said?” and I said yes, that I’d actually spent most of my free time in the previous two days replaying in my mind two or three minutes of a conversation I’d had, embarrassed both about the general idea I was trying to convey and the way I misspoke while tripping over myself to say it. She said it didn’t sound so bad. But she also didn’t tell me what her home movie looked like.)
When I got stuck while drafting this, I asked my mom what I should write about self-respect. It’s the problem with everyone, she mused; or maybe, she countered, it isn’t. “But for women, I think — we’re so uncertain about everything.” The classic gendered balancing act between having a backbone and being full of oneself. More than that, being seen as having a backbone and being seen as being full of oneself — a balance beam that’s also a panopticon.
Some markers of self-respect, according to Joan: respecting boundaries and consequences. Another, maybe, according to me: the ability to advocate for oneself when one is being treated unfairly or unkindly. I guess, though, that relies upon the ability to not mistake “unfairness” for, simply, “not what I want.”
The other day I started thinking about the phrase “with all due respect.” You can take it to mean: There is an amount of respect I owe you, but I won’t tell you how much, and I’m not entirely keen to show you any in excess. You have to admit it’s kind of funny.
Ok, just one last quote from the essay, an image that has stuck with me since I first read it: “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.”
Have a nice week. Sending you love from the inside of my metaphorical Food Fair bag.