Joan Didion, “On Self-Respect”

Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor, I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a matter of misplaced self-respect.

I had not been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. This failure could scarcely have been more predictable or less ambiguous (I simply did not have the grades), but I was unnerved by it; I had somehow thought myself a kind of academic Raskolnikov, curiously exempt from the cause-effect relationships which hampered others. Although even the humorless nineteen-year-old that I was must have recognized that the situation lacked real tragic stature, the day that I did not make Phi Beta Kappa nonetheless marked the end of something, and innocence may well be the word for it. I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honor, and the love of a good man; lost a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proved competence on the Stanford-Binet scale. To such doubtful amulets had my self-respect been pinned, and I faced myself that day with the nonplussed apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire and has no crucifix at hand.

Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself; no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through ones’ marked cards the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed. The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others – who we are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without.

To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that deals one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there’s the hurt on X’s face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, the Phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commissions and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice, or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.

To protest that some fairly improbably people, some people who could not possibly respect themselves, seem to sleep easily enough is to miss the point entirely, as surely as those people miss it who think that self-respect has necessarily to do with not having safety pins in one’s underwear. There is a common superstition that “self-respect” is a kind of charm against snakes, something that keeps those who have it locked in some unblighted Eden, out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general. It does not at all. It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation. Although the careless, suicidal Julian English in Appointment in Samara and the careless, incurably dishonest Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby seem equally improbably candidates for self-respect, Jordan Baker had it, Julian English did not. With that genius for accommodation more often seen in women than men, Jordan took her own measure, made her own peace, avoided threats to that peace: “I hate careless people,” she told Nick Carraway. “It takes two to make an accident.”

Like Jordan Baker, 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 mortal 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 reelection. Nonetheless, character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs.

Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts. It seemed to the nineteenth century admirable, but not remarkable, that Chinese Gordon put on a clean white suit and held Khartoum against the Mahdi; it did not seem unjust that the way to free land in California involved death and difficulty and dirt. In a diary kept during the winter of 1846, an emigrating twelve-yaer-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: “Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke out about it.” Even lacking any clue as to what Mother said, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the entire incident: the father reading, the Indians filing in, the mother choosing the words that would not alarm, the child duly recording the event and noting further that those particular Indians were not, “fortunately for us,” hostile. Indians were simply part of the donnee.

In one guise or another, Indians always are. Again, it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.

That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth. It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult bin the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with ones head in a Food Fair bag. There is a similar case for all the small disciplines, unimportant in themselves; imagine maintaining any kind of swoon, commiserative or carnal, in a cold shower.

But those small disciplines are valuable only insofar as they represent larger ones. To say that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton is not to say that Napoleon might have been saved by a crash program in cricket; to give formal dinners in the rain forest would be pointless did not the candlelight flickering on the liana call forth deeper, stronger disciplines, values instilled long before. It is a kind of ritual, helping us to remember who and what we are. In order to remember it, one must have known it.

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out – since our self-image is untenable – their false notion of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course I will play Francesca to your Paolo, Helen Keller to anyone’s Annie Sullivan; no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.

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. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.

First published 1961 in Vogue; reprinted 1968 in Slouching Toward Bethlehem, included in Didion, Collected Works (Norton, 2006).

Axé.

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57 Comments

Filed under Bibliography, Resources, Theories, What Is A Scholar?

57 responses to “Joan Didion, “On Self-Respect”

  1. Katie

    I find this both really compelling and really off-putting. It basically resonates with me, but my insecurities and the degrees to which I’ve compromised in attaining this state make me feel like she’d despise me. Plus, her casual racism/classism offend. Those last two paragraphs, though – amazing, right at the meat of the issue.

    • james

      there is no racism/ classism here. Joan is simply expressing her thoughts as sourced at an intimately personal level. While i initially found her argument that those of previous were better at accepting the price of accomplishment, the more i read, the more i agreed with her. Great writing.

    • Ad

      Yeah, I was with her until the bit about Indians.

      • Z

        Yes, she clearly identifies with whites/colonizers. But:

        “People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.”

        I am glad to reread this for various reasons — it goes against all the advice I have always gotten about being cautious, which was in fact, as one can see by reading here, advice that did not assume self-respect as feasible or valuable.

    • THANK you. You can’t preach about self respect and then dehumanize a whole people in a sentence:

      “People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile…”

      ‘Indians’ here is objectified much as ventures and liaisons, and clearly not in the same group as ‘people’. It’s a bit hard to have self respect when you’re dismissed from the human equation so easily.

      • Z

        Yes. The defense is that “it’s metaphorical” — I can translate this, for purposes of this blog, to say “the whiteman will be hostile” but her choice of example is very telling. Harder to have self respect when you are in the group that really is dismissed.

  2. Z

    The piece is so 19th century in tone and style, I find. I also relate and don’t. Random, not necessarily nice comments, include:
    – I’m glad I was not raised Republican
    – I’m glad I don’t have her health problems
    – It would be a different life to have the cash she seems to have usually had and the kind of support she had from her husband … it’s another world.

  3. Z

    P.S. I just reread the last two paragraphs, slowly. They really are brilliant.

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  19. Taylor

    How often does true self respect occur? Is it something most people eventually acquire? Or is it a special phenomena reserved for the 10% of leaders (or something like that)?

  20. Z

    To the first two questions: I do not know. To the third: definitely not!

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  23. The last two paragraphs resonated deep,they where amazingly written and I understood where she coming from .Its a thought provoking piece and its amazing even though this was written so long ago, that it can still have an impact and still relate to our times now.

  24. xyetc

    I suspect some of what Didion terms lack of self-respect is cultural, especially regarding the compulsion to please. Two years ago I immigrated to the Netherlands and started learning Dutch. A large part of the curriculum in my Dutch classes revolves around learning how to share your opinion, particularly if it’s something the other party doesn’t want to hear. We’ve had days of instruction on how to say, “no, i don’t want to participate in [this leisure activity] with you,” hours dedicated to “actually, that dress doesn’t look very good on you,” and most recently, a three-part lesson revolving around “i think your leadership style is ineffective.” I doubt (but would love to be proven wrong!) that immigrants to the U.S. learn how to give their opinions in such straightforward terms.

    • Z

      So in Holland, are you supposed to speak directly or indirectly … if they are straightforward why does it take so long to learn these things (or do I misread)?

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  29. Some years ago, I was sitting in a fast food restaurant, waiting for the person I’d made an appointment with for a job interview to arrive back at the office. Stuck in traffic. I’d traveled over an hour to get there. This person had phoned me and gave me an option to wait or make another appointment. I chose to wait and to wait for for the phone call letting me know it was ok to come now. Sitting in this restaurant having a coffee made me feel comfortable and anonymous as I had never been to that particular area and felt kind of vulnerable as I have a lousy sense of direction. It was before GPS’s, but not before cell phones. I was afraid of getting lost in the dark while driving on my way back home.
    Across the room to my left sat a woman, alone. I believe she was reading, something I always’s loved to do when dining alone. I then realized it was Joan Didion . I’d been an avid admirer of hers for years, ever since “Run River” and “Slouching toward Bethlehem.” I dared not disturb her or making the move to go ask her ” Excuse me, but are you Joan Didion?”
    It was then my cell phone rang. It was the call I was expecting. I tried to keep my voice low as the interviewer was giving me directions. I did not state before that we were the only 2 people in this restaurant at probably 4:30 PM. I felt a look of disdain coming from Ms. Didion’s direction. Perhaps it was misinterpreted as a gesture of bad taste of self-importance. I quickly left to go to my appointment but have never forgotten that capsule in time.
    I’ve struggled all of my life with decision making in difficult times. I know who I am. I truly accept the consequences of my poor choices. I’ve always struggled with the issue of self-respect in light of my primal personality traits. I was outspoken before it was considered acceptable for women to be outspoken. In retrospect, I do believe I was strong and persevered through many adversities, losses and deep sadness that only a “sensitive” person could experience.. I didn’t talk about it and tried no to discuss my past with anyone. Early in life I learned how short the average attention span was. If I found myself making the mistake of starting off on some “dialogue of depth” with persons I barely knew or thought I knew and their eyes wandered. I stopped, but I felt true shame.
    Now in my sixties, I feel I’ve come to an area of comfortable self-respect. Getting here has cost much in the way of coming to grips with toxicity. It’s like cutting off one finger at a time until you can’t pinpoint a location any longer. But you stood up. You took your punches but with much criticism and misinterpretation. Explaining myself has become fruitless unless it’s the other person who’s inquiring. The pain is at times truly intense. The disregard and disrespect come shock waves and why is it happening?
    I think of Joan Didion often. The loss of her niece, her husband and her brother in law, Dominic Dunne and how their deaths affected her. Did she know what to do every mini step of the way back to “home plate?” Did she make any mistakes? Does she have any regrets? Have her friends and acquaintances told her she’s “too deep” to listen to? Has all of this and more driven her to a place of isolation in the quest for self-respect?
    I wonder. I truly wish I knew her.

  30. I wish I’d read this sooner.

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  39. Dan

    I know Joan Didion to be a great writer and to have written some novels or essays that are important such as “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”. I appreciate her recognition that Self Respect is a key toward a more settled philosophical state in adults. But, I do not think she has roughed it much in the workplace, where you get kicked around by educated and ambitious others who want to challenge your self worth by proving that they know more than you do. That is very hard on your sense of “self worth”. She does not talk about recognition or appreciation of others. That is part of having a sense of self-worth, that you can acknowledge that there are people better at things than you are, but it does not diminish you. In fact, you may choose to grow through them and become humble and once again seeking to learn in the process. She seems hung up on the fact that she wasn’t the best since she missed Phi Beta Kappa. Big deal. You were 21 and it didn’t work out. Continue to try (as you obviously did) and see that this is just one benchmark you almost made. It isn’t do or die.

    Self-respect, unless you are just one person that is so exemplary in some way, that you have endless devotees, comes from interacting favorably with a wide cross section of people, and realizing that you are or have been a really positive factor in most interactions. That is different than being better or smarter than most everyone around you.

    • Z

      Hi — these are great points and I was having a really similar conversation in person yesterday. Synchronicity!

  40. JR

    To Dan,
    “have been a positive factor in most interactions.” Why does it have to be an antonym? Could not self-respect just come from being a good listener and/or an acute observer of details? As long as one does not “take away” anothers sense of self gravity ( or pound out continual opposites playing devil’s advocate, just for the fun of it– does not this personal silence/peace, translate to a grounded arrival of “self respect?”
    Being a positive factor in most interactions is not for us to have intimate knowledge of. That to me, would be like keeping tabs, self satisfying in that we can put our head on the pillow at night and have a restful nights sleep without regret.

    • Dan

      Thanks JR. I see what you are saying. By a positive factor, I mean that you enabled things somehow to work out better. I don’t mean you were “the winning quarterback”. Maybe the positive part could be because you listened well too, and restrained from passing judgement. I’m sure the author (Didion) s also a great observer of details. In fact she said this: “To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent.” I think it’s okay to have no opinion on most things and just be more content. Anyway I appreciate what you said in your response. I think the best thing is to have some happiness, that is independent of any critical judgement/analysis, that you bring to every situation. In terms of what I was trying to say, Self-Respect in the new-age workplace may mean having confidence to be indifferent from time to time to factors or inputs that are just not constructive. That happens a lot and you need to block it out, and being somewhat content with who you are helps with that.

      • JR

        Sorry I haven’t responded before this Dan, but am “overwhelmed” with paperwork and feeling truly ‘undervalued” at the moment. I am so pleased to be able to have probative communications on this @#$%&*! Thank you for being you! Will respond again when i get caught up.
        JR

  41. Reblogged this on Laurel's Reflections and commented:
    I found an enormous amount of food for thought here tonight. Thank you the wonderful friend who sent it to me at just the right time!

    • JR

      It’s usually when a mind is on the outs with itself that one becomes more vulnerable and tends to have a decline in self-image. When I re-read some of the journal entries from my 20’s, I’m astonished on the clarity of vision i had at that time. So simple. Had less time to get in my own way. Everything was hopeful, future dreams and possibilities, despite early traumas. Our choices and our evolved perspective that comes with time and age obscure this purity of thought, though self-image may have become stronger due to refusal to “revisit”. Rather than looking to the future we look to retrograde and if we have really evolved in light of acceptance and self- forgiveness, we just may be able to feel comfort in our own skins.

      • Z

        Yes — I agree, also about the attitude in 20s. Great comment (useful for me)…

      • JR

        I am truly grateful and deliriously happy at having something to say that may be helpful to another. Carry your dreams in your pocket today and give them a squeeze in idle moments to remind you of your intrinsic value!

  42. Z

    Thank you, JR! :-D

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