The self-centered system

Does the world revolve around me? What a juvenile question it seems. Only children are told to share and think about other people before themselves. So at 24 years of age, no one should be reminding me that the world doesn’t revolve around you. Yet the older I get, the more I see how encouraged I am to think exactly this way: to do things that serve only me, my personal happiness, my independent desires. I keep hearing slogans compelling me to find myself, know myself, seek myself, meditate on myself. We were warned against this thinking back when we were toddlers, which is why I find it so odd that this now standard adult protocol, to the point that not being self-driven is actually deemed naive or juvenile.

I’m not the only one wondering about this, though.

A. MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle offered an interesting approach in her book Alone Together in 2011. She argued that kids today are trying to become mature adults, but are constantly interrupted by new communications technologies and society’s demand to express oneself all the time. For a while, adult maturity was defined by autonomy and personal boundaries (p. 174). However, after over 100 research interviews with children, students and parents, Turkle found that this definition was changing:

For example, there used to be a point for an urban child, an important moment, when there was a first time to navigate the city alone. It was a rite of passage that communicated to children that they were on their own and responsible. If they were frightened, they had to experience those feelings. The cell phone buffers this moment (p. 173).

With nonstop attention paid to their online profile pages, cell phones and text messages, people are “growing up tethered” (p. 171). This I can understand. Like some of Turkle’s interviewees, I can recall countless times I felt proud about an exam grade, astonished by a view, complimented by a stranger and then, immediately, a compulsion to “share” that with someone – anyone – as if the experience couldn’t possibly be real without further confirmation. As Turkle suggests, this is how kids are being beckoned into “an emotional style in which feelings are not fully experienced until they are communicated” (p. 175). In other words, feeling something and voicing something become one and the same; being yourself and connecting to someone else are blurring together. Or, spun positively, people are starting to “cultivate a collaborative self” (p. 176).

But Turkle argues for the troubling irony that by being so emotionally dependent, youth are having difficulty relating to each other more genuinely. Her interviewees told her that when they reached for their phone to scroll through their contact list, or expected immediate responses to their text, they didn’t care so much who came back to them as much as they cared that someone would echo their feelings or repeat it back to them. What a weird thought [I thought] but, then again, surely most of us have felt that weird depression of mood when our little blurb goes unanswered, when we’ve put too much emotional baggage into a five-second typed message. Turkle suggested that this is real narcissism, psychoanalytically defined: not that we love ourselves, but that we own “a personality so fragile that it needs constant support”  from other people (p. 177).

In a seminar of 15 media and communications master’s students, I’m sure you can imagine the controversy Turkle’s ideas sparked: not everyone agreed that technology was such a secretly selfish endeavor. Plus, Turkle’s arguments also confronted me as someone who waxes on and on about the wondrous way that the glorious conversation can chip away at conflict or internal turmoil. (Double-plus, my “Love Language,” or way I show affection to people I care about, is apparently “words of affirmation.” Go figure.) But still I resonated with Turkle, because society’s “need to connect” is all the rage; and everyone is being asked to externalize themselves lest it look like they are void of any critical thought or emotion; and I myself know full well that the more I speak, the more likely I am to start bragging. In some ways, the more we talktalktalk, the more we institutionalize very clever, new varieties of self-centered behavior. Voilà. Frankly, I have to address this in my heart every time I write a blog post on this website.

B. American Christian pastor Timothy Keller took a different road to this same issue, in The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness. The phenomenal little book (literally, it commands all of 44 small pages) offers a four-parted description of the human ego and why it causes so many problems. The ego is:

  1. Empty: constantly searching for something to fill it, prove its worth, achieve something big and grand;
  2. Painful: always getting hurt by someone or other’s comment;
  3. Busy: seeking attention and comparing itself to others;
  4. Fragile: either overinflated with its own importance (superiority complex), or deflated with a sense of self-hate and trying to get inflated again (inferiority complex, basically same as superiority complex).

Keller’s description of ego reminded me of high school, when one of my favorite hobbies was to take personality quizzes in magazines like Seventeen, one of many publications that try to help young women “beat insecurity” through fashion, makeup, celebrities and what’s-your-ideal-guy surveys. (I know this sounds ridiculous if you’ve never read these magazines, but I promise this is all true.) The major themes of these outlets were embracing yourself and marching toward higher and higher self-esteem. I remember discussing these themes in my diaries back then and making efforts to actively tell myself that I was a really cool, confident and composed person, because that’s how I learned women made personal progress in their lives – as Keller accurately observed.

This self-uplifting campaign could be a cultural thing. One of my close friend’s master’s dissertations addressed it in relation to American culture, noting how the celebration of strong personalities and pride in unique, personal identity is a uniquely U.S. trait. The point is to be very centered in self and self-driven achievements. Keller brings a historical explanation, where the current you’re-awesome campaign is a reaction to traditional and pre-twentieth century views that “too high a view of yourself was the root cause of all the evil… hubris – the Greek word meaning pride” (p. 9, italics in original). Now, of course, western cultures believe that societal and developmental problems stem from people’s “lack of self-esteem and… too low a view of themselves” (p. 10, italics in original). Ultimately, the shared observation is the belief that spending even more time thinking about myself will make me a better person.

C. Case in point, a line from my yoga classes recently: “Let go of things that don’t serve you.” This beautifully meditative statement demonstrates some of what Turkle and Keller have observed about self-prioritization. It’s a little concerning, every time I hear it (which is unfortunate because it’s always uttered during the final resting pose). There are definitely things I support letting go of, like obsessions with people or addictions to things. Taken more broadly, though, the “let go” mantra supposes that no inconvenience or immediately uncomfortable thing is worth our time of day, and that any form of personal sacrifice is unnecessary.

It poses some serious problems for long-term relationships. The weddings I’ve been to over the last few years have all upheld the ideals of mutual service, submission and self-sacrifice as a pillar of a marriage that hopes to last. I knew that these wedding ceremonies were unique when I witnessed them (none of those s-words are very popular in mainstream culture right now, for example), but now I’m thinking they really were total flukes in a world where one must abandon whatever does not serve one first. The irony is inescapable, though. I guess the prevailing logic lies in the self-help section at the bookstore: Help everyone by helping yourself first. 

Late author David Foster Wallace gave a speech in 2005 called “This is Water,” admitting how “everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe – the realest, most vivid and most important person in existence.” As he said, this is a universal fact that no one owns up to because it’s so darn ugly. I’ve only met one person who explicitly verbalized his support for a society of individuals that put themselves first, and even that felt really rare. For the rest of us, self-seeking behavior is an important but unacknowledged cornerstone of social norms, and an assumption that is very hard to escape. The value for self-centered behavior might be disguised by our desires to “share” or “connect,” or as a way to build self-esteem, or somehow the way to peace in the world. But I keep thinking about our old twentieth-century minister friend Oswald Chambers, who argued that maybe personal development isn’t actually the same as community development.

“My life is about me,” is like a common sense statement, to the point that even typing it out seems ridiculous. Despite all the hullaballoo about not being selfish when we were kids, who else would my life be about, right? After all, the assumption saturates everything I say and do, so that even when I catch myself criticizing others, I realize I’m just glorifying myself all over again. But is this self-centeredness really the only way for us? Is it really that logical and sensible? Maybe it’s just as logical and sensible as that old model of the stars that put Earth at the center of the universe, which made so much sense to everyone at the time…

No. I’m learning there are alternatives to the supposedly “natural” way of human behavior – all of these quests for self-esteem and self-fulfillment and self-identification (which for some reason seem structured like a weird, moral Ponzi scheme). Like those people above, many have recognized that self-centeredness may be ingrained in us, but it can also be turned around. Our lives can revolve around more than ourselves, even if it takes a lot of daily pride-hacking and some bitter humble pie to believe it. Really, this I believe: the world makes a bunch more sense and gets a bunch more beautiful when I’m not at the center of it.

Griffith Observatory

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2 thoughts on “The self-centered system

  1. lovely. A great summary of Keller’s work and extension to our everyday thinking – I still catch myself resorting to my phone in feelings of social disconnection, a bad habit learned from high school and still following me around. Thanks for the reminder 🙂

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