I’ve been reading a lot of Joan Didion lately. Making my way slowly through her essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which are as sharp and relevant as ever. At the moment, I’ve got an essay on the Botox phenonmenon in the works, and am half assedly working on another one about dating, and feel like such a silly person when I read old Joan. The woman really slices to the heart of things.
Here’s a passage from her essay “On Self-Respect” that blew me away:
"People with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named co-respondent. 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. The measure of its slipping prestige is that one tends to think of it only in connection with homely children and United States senators who have been defeated, preferably in the primary, for re-election. Nonetheless, character - the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life - is the source from which all self-respect springs."
Damn. I think a lot about how important it is to live honestly, and to be honest about your shortcomings. For one, it’s less exhausting than pretending to be someone you’re not, but then also it sets a good example for other people. It’s refreshing to hear about people you admire, or who seem to really have it together, being utter fuck ups in their private lives. It reminds you you’re not alone, and to not judge others too harshly. I need these kind of reminders. I’m too hard on myself, too often comparing myself with others and finding I don’t measure up. Which is obviously a short route to misery. (Ahem, comparing oneself to Joan effing Didion being a case in point.)
But I’ve never really thought about honesty being a key factor in self-respect in such concrete terms. It’s true, of course. Taking responsibility for your life is imperative. But one often thinks of it in the more constructive ways - choosing to commit to a job or a marriage or a family or whatever. It’s interesting to think of it in terms of the destructive ways too. So you drink too much? Own it. So you still smoke? Own that too. You’re overweight because you just can’t get it together to be vigilant about your diet? Just own it. Everyone makes tradeoffs.
This is relevant to the dating essay I’m working on, but which I haven’t yet gotten to the heart of. My single friends and I often talk about settling. We’re in our mid-thirties and are at the point where we don’t want to settle - there’s no point, we’ve seen it play out too miserably in other friends’ relationships, marriages and divorces - but we also don’t want to live like nuns. I’m talking about sex, obviously. And whether to have it with someone you’re dating casually, or maybe not dating at all. You can argue that if you find someone to have sex with casually but who you know isn’t a candidate for a longterm relationship you’re distracting yourself from finding someone who is, but that’s risky too. That can lead to long periods of not having sex, which is neither natural nor healthy. So I guess where I’m landing on this is go for it. Have a friend with benefits (that has become such a dreadful, dreadful phrase), be careful, protect yourself and just own it. If executed properly, it builds your character. And your self-respect.