The lead character in the novel How Should A Person Be has the title question permanently on her mind as she observes “great personalities”, trying to pick out the traits worth emulating:
How should a person be?
For years and years I asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too. I noticed the way people dressed, the way they treated their lovers—in everyone, there was something to envy. You can admire anyone for being themselves. It’s hard not to, when everyone’s so good at it. […]
I know that personality is just an invention of the news media. I know that character exists from the outside alone. I know that inside the body there’s just temperature. So how do you build your soul? At a certain point, I know, you have to forget about your soul and just do the work you’re required to do. To go on and on about your soul is to miss the whole point of life.
It’s a worthy question, but Sheila’s error is assuming that external mannerisms accurately reflect someone’s real self. But even recognizing her fixation on external traits, she cannot see the distinction between character and her definition of “personality”. The “personality”, a constructed self – like her idols Andy Warhol or Oscar Wilde – is seen from the outside. But to be worthy as a person, you have to have faith in something internal, which she labels the “soul”. Sheila wants to stop overanalyzing her main question, to become complete and simply start living, with an innate faith in the integrity of her soul, but she doesn’t understand that the internal work needs to come first, and then guide her actions.
Recently, I came across Joan Didion’s powerful essay “On Self Respect” – compared to Sheila’s vague, halting, Millennial musings, Didion writes a self-assured manifesto about the core of what it means to be a good person. Self-respect, to her, is the backbone of all other traits:
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.
Self-respect is not about seeking outside approval; in fact, self-respect based on external factors – a well decorated house, the latest promotion, the ability to get a date – is an illusion, and easily shaken. It is about self-knowledge, a clarity about one’s own character that has no room for self-deception.
Didion is careful to note that self-respect is not about avoiding mistakes or never causing hurt to another. It is not a “charm” against bad decisions, but “concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation” with one’s choices. It is about courage and taking ownership: “character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.”
In some ways, it is also the courage to be lonely. It is easier to self-deceive, to cut corners, in order to be accepted, to have company, to avoid conflict. Self-respect is knowing that short-term gains of that sort have high costs: “To do without self-respect, [….] 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.” On the other hand, having this quality can “free us from the expectations of others, [and] give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect.”
I have met few people who have self-respect by Didion’s somewhat daunting definition. I am thinking of one in particular, who had a remarkable life, which integrated his values into a successful, meaningful career, close friendships, community service. His awareness of what he stood for was a sort of internal force you could feel immediately when speaking to him. It has made me think hard about my own values, and whether they lead my actions, or whether I justify my actions afterwards. I am trying to at least make small changes – for example, going vegetarian seems to have finally “stuck”, now that I can articulate my reasons for doing so. It’s small, but it’s a start. As Didion writes, “self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth” – and that is worth aspiring to.