On the Sin of Self-Consciousness

February 6, 2010 at 7:33 am | Posted in Goal Progress, Philosophical Problems, Sociability, Spirituality and Religion | Leave a comment

Snake and Apple

For me, self-absorption is the most destructive sin springing from a mood disorder.

I decided recently that it’s selfish to obsess about what others think and feel. This seems counter-intuitive at first. After all, if I’m constantly monitoring others’ reactions, am I not extraordinarily kind and sensitive?

Perhaps not. The following reasons persuade me that such sensitivity is actually another form of self-absorption.

First, my motive for knowing others’ opinions of me is entirely selfish. I don’t actually care how others feel; I’m not even certain that I attribute much agency or emotion to them. Certainly I don’t imagine that they might have drives and sorrows that I can only guess at. Nope, when I want to know what people think, my interest is limited to what they think about me. I’m overstating the case here — I am not a psychopath, and thus feel compassion for friends, family, and lovers. But even though I’ve figured out that I am not the heroine of a Georgette Heyer novel (not even the willful and mannish Lady Serena Carlow of Bath Tangle), I still place myself firmly at the center of the known world.

Specifically, in conversation I act as if people desperately need to find me bewitching, when they’d probably much prefer that I be drawn to them. I have to make a conscious effort to put people at ease, for example, and I’m reluctant to give them the satisfaction of knowing that I dote upon them.

As if that weren’t enough, when I’m ostensibly concerned about others, I’m paying little attention to them. Instead, I’m busily monitoring my reactions to them. I don’t ask questions — my yardstick for others’ inner lives is what I think about them.

Finally, there’s this piece of indirect evidence: In Christianity (or, at least, in the Catholic and Episcopalian traditions) self-reliance is a sin. To the extent that rely on your own perceptions and impulses, you have turned away from God. Christianity doesn’t place a Buddhist-style emphasis on compassion; instead, you should aim to know God’s will. This isn’t easy, since it entails communicating with someone who is by definition not perceptible though the senses. (My friend Al once saw an application for a tenure-track job that asked in all seriousness, “When did you last walk with God?” St. Augustine frowns from heaven upon that search committee.) Much of the paradoxical duty of Christianity rests in finding that “still, small voice,” which is neither internal nor located in the material world.

I’m familiar with the old philosophical argument that we are radically isolated from the natural world, let alone from others. I wonder if that’s really true, though. I’m not prepared to provide evidence to support my position, but I am intuitively inclined to think that we can commune profoundly with others, and that it’s not just a duty, but a relief.

I’m not sure what all of this means, but I have been thinking about it during recent social interactions. I try to devote myself to the other person by understanding that I comprise only a small part of their inner lives, and that they need more than to be charmed and entertained by me.

So, thought of the day.

While we’re on the subject of Me, Glorious Me, I should mention that though I’m making decent progress towards becoming The Perfect Mental Patient, I am still tormented by my many shortcomings and tempted to make dozens of resolutions for improvement. I know that if I take on several more projects I will end up discouraged, but I find it hard to resign myself to such slow improvement. My faults seem so urgent, you see. Nonetheless, I have been walking, praying, and socializing dutifully, and all three are contributing to my happiness.

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