A few weeks ago, I reread Joan Didion’s essay on self-respect. It smacked me on the back of the head at the right time: I was wringing my hands over work and life, then, as a fully-realized modern person, I began to worry about my worrying.
It is the phenomenon sometimes 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.
Self-respect yields honesty, honesty allows directness, directness produces integrity, and integrity suggests grace. I’ve always longed for grace in my day to day—to elegantly jump from obligation to obligation and juggle it all with assurance and skill. Until the last paragraph, I was left without good example, since most grace is surface, and under the skin lives a barely concealed chaos.
I am like most everyone I know—I have too many obligations. Last month, I would have identified this as the perfect opportunity to practice gracefully. This month’s man feels otherwise. Continually attempting to manage too much isn’t the mark of grace, it’s the sign of a dumbass. It’s best to identify and do what you’re required and able, then jettison the rest.
I made a small note: remember your reasons, so your no’s mean no and your yes’s mean yes. If yes, understand the cost, accept it, and go forth. This is the antidote to the whiplash of modern life, to automatic and unchecked desire, to the anxiety created by spinelessness. A person must know what’s enough, and stand beside the choice.