Essays About

Self and Others

A reader's days would seem dull to someone watching from outside. I read, think about my reading, and write about my thinking. I spend hours in chairs, staring at pages or screens, not speaking, hardly moving. The audience would wonder if I were alive. The life is inside: a reader's outward calm belies a mind in motion. We are wrong to think of readers as introverts. Readers are secret extroverts who crave constant society, only they crave it with novelists, philosophers, and poets, not their neighbors. They traverse distant worlds and interview the dead, while the so-called socialites never leave the local scene, homebodies of the here and now.

At parties, relocating from acquaintance to acquaintance, I exchange updates on work, family, or upcoming travel plans, repeating the same conversation five times an hour. To stave off boredom, I listen more than talk. I have a learner's nature, not a teacher's: I am more interested in what I do not know than in what I know. Thus I regard as a bore not the person who only speaks about himself but the person who only asks about me, a topic I already know. I seek out egotistical people who expand my knowledge of the world with detailed narratives of their fly-fishing excursions or their child's violin concerts, people who are as little interested in asking polite questions about me as I am in answering them. I want to hear the opinions of experts, and everyone is an expert about his own life.

The less sympathy I feel toward an opinion, the warier I am of dismissing it. If the opinion seemed as ridiculous to others as to me, no one would assent to it. Therefore, others must see something I do not. I risk a false victory in scorning it, like a man who easily triumphs over his opponents in dreams because they are only his brain's emaciated inventions. Instead, if I cast my imagination beyond the circumference of my experience, I invariably find the odious viewpoint's flattering angle. Understanding grants the right, and removes the desire, to condemn.

Gossip consists of two people bonding with each other at someone else's expense. Over drinks after work, new friends speak ill of a co-worker. They do not mean to be mean. Rather, their unkind words are an offering of kindness to each other, as if to say, See how much more I like you than I do him.

We appreciate similarity by contrast with difference. Amid the foreign speech and customs of other cultures, we make instant friends with a fellow countryman, chattering like old companions, though on streets at home we would pass each other by as strangers. We exchange phone numbers but never call, because once home among friends, a shared homeland is an unremarkable bond.

A common enemy makes former enemies friends. Political parties battle each other in times of peace, while national unity is rarely so strong as in time of war. Widening the logic, if a hostile race of extraterrestrials arrived to annihilate earth, Iran and Israel would hold hands for the good of humanity.

My wife and I settle our arguments by deciding whom an adverse outcome would bother more. Better that one of us be slightly annoyed than the other be greatly annoyed. Rather than cajole each other or come to shouts, we weigh our would-be grievances. This leads to a policy of laissez-faire: if she wishes to attend a reunion and I do not, she goes alone, though she would rather I went with her and I would rather she stay home with me. Dragging me along would bring her less pleasure than me annoyance; vice versa if I stood in her way.

I apply this principle to the issue of gay rights. Discrimination hurts gays more than equality for gays hurts their opponents. At stake for gay people are their own lives; at stake for their opponents, merely others' lives. The effect on gays is material, direct, and daily; the effect on their opponents, abstract, remote, and occasional, concerning only the conformity of society to their moral beliefs. My neighbor, not me, gets to choose how to decorate his living room because he lives in it while I merely glimpse it through his window. Our rights extend only to the property line of our own life.

Traditional values are unjustly said to be under attack by the gay rights movement. An attack entails crossing the border into another's territory. Therefore no one can be an attacker who is merely defending his right to a share of the common happiness available to mortals. Gay rights is an issue of self-defense, which only looks like an attack because traditional values have so long forced a portion of humanity to suffer in silence.

I instinctively envy celebrities with their adoring crowds until I remember how little I like to socialize, altering my route on walks to avoid passing long-winded neighbors. I would only have wanted to be a celebrity before cameras and television, when admirers knew your name but not your face, and you could pass among them incognito. Today's celebrities enjoy every luxury except solitude. Like fugitives, they cannot visit the grocery store without hiding in hats and sunglasses. Their fame grants them access to privileged places but bars them from common places. To know yourself seems impossible when everyone knows you. The true self is the unrehearsed self, but spontaneity hides from an audience. I pity presidents who must issue official responses immediately after tragedies, unable like laymen to have a private reaction. They cannot attend to how they feel on account of planning what they must say. Even on private retreats where the press are barred, the protagonists of future history books are seldom alone, for they violate their solitude with the thought of their posthumous biographers. In fixating on how their fans and critics see them, they evict themselves from the private residence of their soul, giving up inner knowledge for a stranger's view of the exterior.

Privacy is life's consolation prize for worldly insignificance. Whomever the public does not ignore, it enslaves. Fame is like a spice: a little flavors life, but a lot ruins it.

Most of our successes are so modest as to better resemble failures. The ripples we make in society are detectable only by ourselves. Happily, we are masters at making the most of little. Our small feats appear huge through the microscope of our vanity. We plaster plaques and diplomas on our home office walls, a private shrine to self with one worshipper. We re-read to infinity newspaper clippings that quote us. We slip references to our latest achievements into conversations, as others are otherwise destined to ignorance of them. An internet search gets us giddy that five web pages—out of five hundred billion—mention our name.

The mind's hunger is not like the stomach's. The hungrier the stomach, the more it needs. The hungrier the mind, the less.

Human nature needs both fellowship and freedom, but usually we must choose. The more we encircle ourselves with others, the more we handcuff our will. Ask for help on a project at work, and it will not be done exactly how you want. Marry, and your holidays will be spent at in-laws'. Have children, and you will listen to their music in the car instead of yours. But worship your freedom, and you will be an empty temple. A bachelor's life resembles a widower's. Write, sing, or paint the way you please, disregarding the market's demands, and you will be your own and only audience. Travel wherever you want, whenever you want, and you will go alone.

Fellowship imprisons us, freedom exiles us.

When I need to think, I think out loud. Silent reflection is a lonely interior affair, whereas saying one's thoughts audibly splits the self into speaker and listener and turns monologue into dialogue. Nor is any dialogue quite so enjoyable as a dialogue with oneself. This is not a matter of vanity but compatibility. Who else besides me always and unfailingly desires to discuss exactly the same subjects I do? We start from shared premises, hold equivalent interests with equivalent passion, get bored at just the same moment and, without the awkwardness of hinting, simultaneously move on to another topic.

Each of us is our own perfect match.

Every day, strangers look at our face—our brows, cheeks, lips, and lashes—but all we have ever seen of ourselves, while closing one eye, is the blurry lump of our nose. Were it not for mirrors and photographs, we could not tell if we had Cleopatra's looks or Socrates'. Oddly, we know others better than ourselves, for we observe their reality, but only copies of ourselves.

Faces are like assumptions: we see with them, we do not see them.