“I Am Whatever You Say I Am”?
Jeffrey Israel has taught religion and political philosophy at Northwestern
University and Rutgers University. He currently teaches Jewish history at Eugene
Lang College of The New School in New York City. He has a Ph.D. in religious ethics from the University of Chicago.
It is gratifying when people see you just as you want to be seen.
But don’t count on it.
If you like to think of yourself as a gentle person of few words others may nevertheless find you boring and pathetic. You may like to think of yourself as curious and passionate about ideas, while others find you loud and arrogant. You may imagine yourself a real do-gooder, while people around you role their eyes, viewing your efforts as mere self-aggrandizement under the cover of moral pretense. You may fancy yourself a sophisticated wit with a clever ironic take on the world, while others find you juvenile and irritating.
However you present the narrative arc of your life to yourself, there will always be others who would tell your story quite differently. And among those, there may be some who would tell it exactly in the way that you dread it might be told.
Heightened awareness of this dissonance can feel unbearable.
How do people cope?
Some people isolate themselves from others: the less you expose yourself to others, the less opportunity others have to form and express an opposing opinion of you.
A person might, on the other hand, surround himself with people who will reliably mirror-back his preferred self-image. Securing high status in some sphere of life is very helpful in this regard: if others are compelled to placate you as a result of your power or prestige, if they want something from you like money, connections, or prestige-by-association, then you can count on them to calibrate their deference to your expectations.
The problem, of course, is that this requires you to suppress any knowledge of the fact that others are propping-up your self-portrait under duress. It will not be a problem, though, if you are sufficiently delusional or unwilling to consider seriously how others around you may be experiencing the world.
There is also the strategy of total war: tightly wound, back up, on edge, confrontational, ready at every moment to defend your idea of yourself against all challenges, and ready to quash even the slightest suggestion of an alternative. Where too many people go in this direction there may be violence at the end of the road.
None of these responses are admirable. But it is only in rare cases that a person appears always and entirely locked in one of these defensive postures. In our scientistic age, such extreme cases are usually described in terms of “mental disorders.”
Most of us, I assume, behave in the above ways to varying degrees throughout our lives depending on how well things are going. When things are not going well – when something inside you feels persistently and painfully unsettled, when you feel disrespected, invisible, demoralized, or that people unbearably see you in the wrong way – you are more likely to find yourself alone, surrounded by sycophants, or mired in one confrontation after another.
To be sure, isolation, the accrual of sycophants, and constant confrontation are not necessarily signs that things are going badly: you may be isolated for a long period of time trying to accomplish an important and admirable task, you may accrue sycophants as a result of some great achievement and be unable to shake them, and you may find yourself incessantly in confrontations because you hold a justifiable but unpopular view about something.
Be careful, though. These are also the very reasons that people who are not doing well and responding unadmirably often give to themselves in order to avoid being troubled by greater self-awareness (which would reveal that things are not actually going very well).
I assume that “greater self-awareness” is generally worthwhile, even at the expense of a comforting delusion. This is in part because I take a high level of self-awareness to be integral to an admirable disposition in social life, where there is always some dissonance between how you want to be seen and how others see you.
Along with a high level of self-awareness, it may be beneficial to have a sense that you are somehow affirmed, recognized, worthy of respect, or even loved from an impartial third-person perspective. The moral idea that you are a person worthy of equal respect like every other person can provide a good basis for a sense of self-respect. The political idea that the state, your country, recognizes you as a citizen among citizens with basic rights can support confidence in your fundamental dignity. The theological idea that God loves you unconditionally can be a basis for self-love.
Self-respect, confidence in your own fundamental dignity, and self-love are all stabilizing forces amidst the tumultuous relativism of how you appear to yourself and others.
But third-person “common denominator” perspectives (like those derived from morality, constitutional law, and theology) ultimately provide minimal compensation for the failure of others to see you more precisely as you would like to be seen: as a tough guy, an intellectual, a victim who has survived great hardship, a good-hearted Christian, an intrepid free-thinker, an endearing schlemiel, wise, cosmopolitan, down-to-earth, smart, etc.
So what does an admirable response to “self-image relativism” look like? Here is a preliminary sketch:
An admirable person maintains relationships that challenge her preferred picture of herself. She cultivates an environment where she is recognized as the kind of person she imagines herself to be, but she is nevertheless happy to enter other environments where she is seen very differently. Her diverse relationships and spheres of experience function as “checks and balances” on her less admirable tendencies.
In general, she has a studied awareness of her usual reactions to the uncontrollable eyes of others: a sense for the little twitches of envy and resentment, the subtle compulsion to compete and dominate, the feeling of claustrophobia quietly compelling her to flee, and so on. She manages these tendencies with grace, finessing them to the margins of her mind so that they do not obstruct healthy interaction.
She places a reasonable amount of faith in others, assuming that they too are trying to manage themselves. She remembers that others are also vulnerable to the way that she sees them and she modifies her behavior accordingly. She tries to be charitable when others present themselves to her. But she knows when there is enough trust and mutual understanding to challenge another person’s self-image if needed. Thus, when she is challenging her spirit of friendship is self-evident.