Once upon a time, two very different friends, in the space of a few days, said to me, “I think you need to get some self-respect.”
Well, it's the sort of thing you can say in Dear Abby, where everyone devoutly believes that the self exists and that respecting it is a good idea – hence the overflowing happiness one always discovers in that column – but what could it mean to me?
I saw at once that it was true, but I also saw that I had a difficult translation to perform before I could use its truth. I've spent the last five years carrying it folded up in my pocket, a one-item grocery list for the next time I'm in the other world: “pick up some self-respect.”
Oh dear, this threatens to become so abstract as to be useless. Let's ascend at once to cases. Suppose I were to take a corner wrong and sideswipe a parked car. Just barely: just enough to quietly scrape its paint. And suppose it was five in the morning, no one out and about. A person with self-respect – in our sense – would leave a note with his contact information. A person without it would drive away, rapidly refitting his stories about who he was in the world. He would think, “what is scraped paint? Do I care about scraped paint, on my own car? I do not. Why should I take on someone else's stupid automotive vanity? What can it matter? And if no one knows it was me, is it even I, in any sense that matters, that scraped the car?” And the longer he drove away, the more impossible coming back and owning up would be: for now he was not just a careless driver, but one who drove off without identifying himself.
The difference between the two responses – the difference that's important to me, anyway – has nothing to do with integrity. It has to do with acknowledging other people. Because, while it's very true that automotive vanity is stupid – and while it might very well be true that I would not myself care, if I came out of my house in the morning and found my paint damaged – nevertheless, my imagination can either extend itself to the owner of the scraped car or not. I can acknowledge that the owner of the scraped car might care. He might also care not at all for his paint, but care whether others cared about his feelings. I can imagine this – or not. If I decide not to imagine it, I have failed, not in integrity, but in compassion.
Has this case taken us far afield? Yes and no. Because of course my friends were not talking about anything like this.
I have been thinking a great deal about how central humiliation is to the human experience. Dreading it, experiencing it, avoiding it: sometimes I think it's most of what human beings do. Exactly what that has to do with self-respect, I hesitate to say at once: a number of suspiciously glib responses arise, but I would rather sit quietly for bit and think about it. But I will say this: that as I've been contemplating it, I've found a deadly cold anger, and a determination never to accept humiliation again. An old resolve, I think: it seemed almost to come from outside of me. I suspect I've laid my finger on the source of most of the seemingly random explosions of rage that are so disquietingly common in the modern world: that they're responses to intolerable accumulations of humiliation.
(And I will say at once, since I am on the Trail of Digression here, that to make the world a better place, what we must do at once and above all is stop humiliating each other. And on the internal side of that, always the more important and the more difficult, we must learn not accept humiliation.
(How does one refuse to accept humiliation, while taking responsibility? The two look contradictory, but actually they are deeply congruent and mutually supporting. Both take the war to the enemy. And both depend on understanding oneself as vulnerable, contingent, unpredictable, and even dangerous.))