The Age of Social Comparison: When Self-Involvement Makes You Unhappy

We live in an age of entitlement and self-involvement.  A Metra train conductor offered an example last summer:

I was taking tickets and the train was getting pretty crowded. I noticed a middle-aged lady standing near an empty seat. I could tell she was asking a young woman to move a package so she could sit. Apparently, to no avail. So, I walked over to smooth the situation over. The younger woman was gorgeous, maybe 25 or so, and attending to her phone, not the person hovering over her. When I asked her to move the stuff she ignored me. I tried again, same result: head down, as if I didn’t exist. OK, now I bent down so I was harder to ignore and told her she needed to let the woman sit; said the other person had a right to a seat. Finally she talks, in a kind of astonished and disrespectful voice, ‘You don’t understand, I’m beautiful!’

Does her beauty make her happier, I wondered? Are her gorgeous selfies (I’m sure she has a ton) the path to everlasting bliss? Taking them, making them, reviewing them, sharing them, comparing them?

The back-to-back hardships of the Great Depression (1929-1939) and World War II (1939-1945), contributed to a more modest and realistic view of a life worth living: a selfie-less and more selfless life. In 1931, James Truslow Adams coined a soon famous expression capturing something now lost and redefined, “that the American Dream of a better, richer, happier life (be available) for all our citizens of every rank.” Not fame or Midas-like wealth, but “enough” in the reach of all.

Granted, he didn’t include blacks in his vision, but at least his view was independent of constant social comparisons, Kardashianized aspirations, and the belief more is always better: a bigger residence, finer clothes, and social status. Where happiness is somehow attached to what you buy and the ability to turn heads until they swivel. Where college is intended not to enlighten you to the glorious natural world, man’s loftiest thoughts, and responsibility to his fellow creatures, but to learn enough technique to receive special treatment for you and your wallet.

I believe a good part of today’s unhappiness, not including the genuine want suffered by so many, is that a large number of those doing pretty-well want more and more with no end to their wanting. Want for themselves.

Perhaps no limit exists because there is always someone with more. We envy greater beauty, infinite wealth, a bigger house, a superior job when they are not ours. Envy assumes “my life would be better if only …” according to Joseph Epstein. TV, not to mention the internet and other vehicles of voyeurism, show people flaunting their prosperity. We know how much they make for a living, where they reside, and what cars they drive. The “information highway” and its attendant loss of privacy fuels our desire and our frustration.

The question then becomes not how can I get more of what they have (and thereby grab on to more happiness), but does this path lead to my goal?

Christopher Boyce, Gordon Brown, and Simon Moore, in a 2010 article in Psychological Science, provided data from 12,000 British adults which supports the notion that comparing ourselves to others is a problem. The authors found that “the rank position of an individual’s income within his reference group dominated the explanation of life satisfaction. “In other words, “satisfaction is gained from each ‘better than’ comparison and lost for each ‘worse than’ comparison.’” Moreover, their subjects tended to make comparisons to those above themselves in income 1.75 times more than they made those comparisons to those below them.

Following the same logic, even if your wage increases by a substantial amount, your sense of well-being might not substantially increase unless the extra salary changes your rank within your comparison group (or unless your paycheck is relatively modest, as noted below). If all incomes go up without changing your rank you would be no happier.

All this envy-induced pain might be justified if it motivated people and led to the prosperity needed to unlock the door to serenity. The problem is, the key doesn’t work. Indeed, international ratings of life satisfaction put the USA high, but not as high as you’d think given our superior wealth. We rank 19th of the 34 OECD countries in the 2017 World Happiness Report.

Psychological research suggests that beyond $75,000 in annual income, you don’t get much hedonic bang for the additional buck. In other words, all the things you would buy with the extra money your neighbor has won’t make your moment-to-moment experience of life much more pleasing unless your income was unexceptional in the first place.

What does this mean at a practical level? In the December 23, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books, Thomas Nagel wrote:

When I was growing up, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the local movie theater, and you saw what was playing that week. Now I can see almost any movie from the entire history of cinema whenever I feel like it. Am I any happier as a result? I doubt it.”

Sound familiar? Similar to kids who are thrilled with their long yearned-for Christmas gifts, we adults put most new material acquisitions on the shelf or use them with little delight after a small passage of time. Warning: if shopping is the way you fill yourself up, this is your future.

The temporary “high” of a new purchase is diminished because of “hedonic adaptation.” Put simply, we get accustomed to things. The momentary excitement of the new possession soon wanes, like the smell of a new car.

Ah, but hope is not dead. The ancient moral philosophers of Greece and Rome recommended less concern with status, wealth, and material things. Instead, they suggested personal contentment would come from knowing yourself, performing social acts of virtue and public good, and friendship. Researchers now recognize the important part friendship, doing good, and being grateful can have on well-being.

The psychologist Csíkszentmihályi offers another path to satisfaction. He points to the capacity of productive and engaging work to produce a sense of “living in the moment:” unmindful of past and future because of being pleasantly engrossed in the present. This is called the “flow” state, one in which you are completely focused at a maximum level of performance and untroubled, positive experience. “In the zone” as athletes describe it. A different path to living in the moment, of course, is the mindfulness meditation of those master meditators who are among the happiest folks on earth.

Social scientists also remind us that married people are happier than those going solo, although it is unclear whether this is due to the positive influence of marriage on well-being, the possibility individuals who are relatively happy are more likely to marry, or some other cause.

Last point: data analysis by Christopher Boyce and Alex Wood in their 2010 article in Health Economics, Policy and Law found a short-term course of psychotherapy is at least 32 times more effective than monetary awards in improving a sense of well-being among those who have experienced some form of injury or loss.

I’ve said enough. I imagine you are scheduling a therapy appointment already.

The top Foto is the work of Catarinasilva25 and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The four paintings also come from Wikimedia Commons and are described in this way on Wikipedia:

The Four Freedoms is a series of four 1943 oil paintings by the American artist Norman Rockwell. The paintings—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—are each approximately 45.75 inches (116.2 cm) × 35.5 inches (90 cm), and are now in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The four freedoms refer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s January 1941 Four Freedoms State of the Union address in which he identified essential human rights that should be universally protected. The theme was incorporated into the Atlantic Charter, and became part of the charter of the United Nations. The paintings were reproduced in The Saturday Evening Post over four consecutive weeks in 1943, alongside essays by prominent thinkers of the day.

Confidence and Ignorance: Not as Far Apart as You Think

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Every woman should meet Anatole Kuragin. Indeed, you probably have, but don’t know it. He is dashing, carefree, devil-may-care, self-assured, and self-deluded. As one character in Tolstoy’s War and Peace says of its two ladies’ men, “Dolokhov and Anatole Kuragin have driven all our ladies out of their minds.”

Prince Kuragin is a prince of a fellow literally, but not figuratively. He’d be described as a “player” today:

He walked with a restrained swagger than would have been ridiculous if he had not been so good-looking and if his handsome face had not borne an expression of such benevolent satisfaction and good cheer. … With women Kuragin was much more intelligent and simple than in the company of men. He spoke boldly and simply, and … had a most naively cheerful and good-natured smile.

On one particular woman, his effect is to “make her feel constrained, hot, and oppressed.” Hot seems the right word even as we now interpret it, almost 150 years since Tolstoy’s work was published.

But looking into his eyes, she felt with fear that between him and her that barrier of modesty which she had always felt between herself and other men was not there at all. Without knowing how herself, after five minutes she felt terribly close to this man.

Part of Prince Kuragin’s impact is doubtless due to his purely physical qualities. But Tolstoy makes the point elsewhere that Kuragin is, in fact, not intellectually talented or hard-working. His confidence comes, in part, from his lack of self-awareness and the gift of not reflecting on who he is, what he does, the errors he makes, and the wounds he inflicts.

Anatole was not resourceful, not quick and eloquent in conversation, but he had instead a capacity, precious in society, for composure and unalterable assurance. … Besides that, in Anatole’s behavior with women there was a manner which more than any other awakens women’s curiosity, fear, and even love — a manner of contemptuous awareness of his own superiority.

Keep Prince Kuragin in mind as you read this excerpt from an essay by Cornell University’s David Dunning, We Are All Confident Idiots:

In 1999, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my then graduate student Justin Kruger and I published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize — scratch that, cannot recognize — just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers — and we are all poor performers at some things — fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.

What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

This isn’t just an armchair theory. A whole battery of studies conducted by myself and others have confirmed that people who don’t know much about a given set of cognitive, technical, or social skills tend to grossly overestimate their prowess and performance, whether it’s grammar, emotional intelligence, logical reasoning, firearm care and safety, debating, or financial knowledge. College students who hand in exams that will earn them Ds and Fs tend to think their efforts will be worthy of far higher grades; low-performing chess players, bridge players, and medical students, and elderly people applying for a renewed driver’s license, similarly overestimate their competence by a long shot.

Such individuals are confident because they look at themselves through the distorted lens of their own self-delusion. In the case of a cad like Kuragin — one who has his way with people and then discards them — his self-image is that of a person who is noble and intelligent, despite the obvious characteristics of foolishness, impulsivity, and unreliability Tolstoy impresses on us. Since he is “irreproachable” in his eyes, each of his acts must be good. Men and women of this type reason from an abstract belief about their own value, which automatically confers propriety on all of their behavior. If you suggested he had done something bad, he would reject your opinion and find a justification for his action. You would be told you are too critical or ignored or rebuked for your own shortcomings.

We are dealing with someone who is narcissistic, so in love with himself he doesn’t have room to love others. He is not trying to be hurtful and would be astonished to see himself as he is. Just as unfortunate, he is ignorant of much else in life, including his own level of competence.

Now consider this comment, also from Professor Dunning, who is talking about competence alone:

Because it’s so easy to judge the idiocy of others, it may be sorely tempting to think this doesn’t apply to you. But the problem of unrecognized ignorance is one that visits us all.

OK. My point here is not to make you feel bad about yourself, so I’ll change perspective again and leave you with this thought.

We just had an election. Some of the candidates — now our elected representatives — were enormously confident. Indeed, among us there are those who were impressed by their confidence. These officials will now be leading our city, our state, our nation.

Uh-oh!

What are You Trying to Prove? Show-offs on Stage and Off

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We called them show-offs, the kids who did anything to capture your gaze. One such, eight years old, turned his eyelid inside-out on the playground. Girls gasped, screamed, and stampeded away. A tough guy (me) kept watching with the other boys, wondering what would come next. Act Two involved the young showman’s zippered trousers. You can imagine the rest.

This youthful exhibitionism seemed akin to those playmates who displayed “real” talent, who enjoyed doing difficult tasks requiring skill as well as brazenness. I’m talking about the sort of boy who walked the edge of a high fence without falling off; whose sense of balance was superb. “I can do something hard (or scary) and you can’t,” he seemed to say, and he was right.

Does this have anything to do with adults? How about the performing arts? Both.

I’d suggest we divide stunts into two categories: those not requiring any special ability and those that do. Thus, I’d place the eyelid-turner or a man who bit off the head of a bat (rocker, Ozzy Osbourne) in the first group. I’m classifying Ozzy as a bat-biter, not a musician. The kid who walked the fence belongs in category two, as does Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist. Both daredevils draw a crowd, but the first requires only shamelessness and “chutzpah,” the Yiddish word for nervy audacity.

Stewart Goodyear fits in the second group. He has, more than once, played all 32 of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas in a single day. Ten hours’ worth. This is not simply an athletic feat, but an artistic one. His recordings of these pieces demonstrate more than endurance. One still might ask, “Why?”

In 2013, David Patrick Stearns of the Philadelphia Inquirer, did:

You’ll inevitably ask what he’s trying to prove.

“Nothing,” is his first answer. “Well, maybe a little at the beginning,” he recently conceded in Philadelphia, where the Toronto-born pianist now lives.

The artist elaborated in an interview with Elijah Ho in the same year:

There is an inner glory, a kind of salvation when one plays Beethoven. My goal in presenting the complete Beethoven sonatas was to bring the audience into the world of Beethoven so that they could experience a retrospective of his art, from his early 20’s to his 50’s.

I felt I was being taken on a journey as I was performing each one. There is the kind of connotation that the day was all about stamina. For me, it was a baptism and one of the deepest performing experiences of my life, and I actually felt myself getting stronger as the day progressed. Beethoven’s music was my bread and water, so to speak, and the reception was very, very warm.

Well, Mr. Goodyear is a young man and perhaps it is proper for a young man to “feel his oats.” Better Beethoven than going to war.

What might make an older man, however, do something similar? In 2009 the Berlin Staatskapelle Orchestra played all nine numbered Mahler Symphonies and more, in the space of 12 days at Carnegie Hall. Two conductors presided. Or take Valery Gergiev’s 2013 tour concerts of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. The evening lasted over two-and-a-half hours inclusive of two intermissions. Twice, the late Lorin Maazel conducted all nine Beethoven Symphonies in a single day. Like Goodyear’s “long day’s journey into night,” the architects of these feats gave similar lofty rationales: an “immersion” experience, an opportunity to learn more about the development of the composer’s thought, etc.

I witnessed the Gergiev concert in Chicago and a few of the Mahler evenings in New York. The “immersions” left me worse for the wear. And wondering.

First, my hat is off to the performers. Regardless of age, they demonstrated an exceptional level of stamina and concentration. But, to paraphrase Toscanini, I put my hat back on when it comes to the ill-conception of these alleged “artistic” projects. If you want to be as fascinating as Harry Houdini, get yourself straitjacketed, chained, and dumped in a tank of water. You will have your audience enthralled and be done in a few minutes. For me, all the performers accomplished was my “immersion” in an ocean of sound. Even without being straitjacketed, I was sunk.

That said, the events required extraordinary musical and physical preparation. Goodyear told Colin Eatock this in 2010:

Physically, I trained like an athlete, building up stamina and strength so I could play all 32 in one day. I learned them so thoroughly I could play them in my sleep. It’s like the Method acting made famous by Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Sydney Poitier: learning the words so thoroughly that you become the character.

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Analogies are useful to give a sense of things. I will offer two in order to explain the possible motivation of these daredevils:

  • #1: A famous man I interviewed, but never before met, whipped out his cell-phone during a break in our conversation. This gentleman, on the dark side of 60, showed me a photo of his new wife, a beauty half his age. What he did not say was, “See, I can still do this,” meaning attract a hot young babe.
  • #2: A couple came to marital therapy.
    • Exhibit A: a movie-star-handsome husband, around age 50.
    • Exhibit B: a traffic-stopping wife, somewhat younger, either well-preserved, cosmetically enhanced, or both. I asked what first attracted him to her: “She shows well,” he answered. He might have described a show horse. Amazingly, the woman did not leave the room, pull out a weapon, or strangle him.

These two examples offer us a few inferred human characteristics. Inflated-egos, boasting that is just short of locker-room tales of sexual heroics, and talent. Both were ladies’ men. Not every man is the alpha dog and these two well-understood their place in the pecking order.

The musicians might be characterized in the same way, with a narcissistic display proclaiming, “Look at me.” Not just big egos, but perhaps some underlying insecurity requiring a public affirmation of their fearlessness to do something no one dared before.

I suppose I was to blame for my disappointing concert experiences with Barenboim and Boulez conducting Mahler, and Gergiev leading Stravinsky. If Goodyear or I thought enough about his marathon in advance, we might have realized that the entire audience needed physical training for these events. The stunts were beyond the crowd’s endurance and perhaps their pocket books. I didn’t have the “Sitzfleisch” (patience to sit still) for Gergiev’s two-and-a-half hours, let alone Goodyear’s Beethoven day. Wisely, I chose not to spend the better part of 12 days listening to concert after Mahler concert, hearing only the first three installments.

I’m left with several questions, not only how an audience might endure these undertakings without a post-concert visit to an undertaker.

  • Is serving the composer the genuine goal when listeners are worn to a nub? How many ticket-holders made the complete “journey” through the composer’s thought? Even sales figures wouldn’t provide proof of souls who thrived and survived. Tickets can be exchanged, shared, sold, or go unused; and people are free to leave before a concert’s end.
  • Where is the line between a serious endeavor and a stunt? Some amount of attention-seeking is both human and essential to performance. Where is the line marked, TOO MUCH?
  • Might well-known composers be better honored by setting their music aside for a year or more? (An impossible feat to enforce, I know). Perhaps we’d emerge refreshed. It would be like a fast that leaves one with a renewed appreciation of food.
  • What did the majority of people think about the use of their money and time? How many heads were nodding off among those who heard an entire marathon? Am I too critical of these “complete works” projects? No one was forced to attend.
  • Is the audience to blame? Are we, like the ancient Romans, easily swayed by “bread and circuses,” a preoccupation with food and spectacle?

Perhaps it comes to this, in P.T. Barnum’s words:

The show business has all phases and grades of dignity, from the exhibition of a monkey to the exposition of that highest art in music or the drama which secures for the gifted artists a world-wide fame princes well might envy.

The Barnums of the world would know.

The top photo is Harry Houdini in 1899. It was sourced from Wikipedia.

Dr. Frankenstein and the Curse of Self-Awareness: Part II (Conclusion)

If you haven’t read the first part of this story, go to:  Dr. Frankenstein and the Curse of Self Awareness. Then return here for the conclusion.

The phantasm was your standard-issue genie, up to a point: skyscraper tall, with a long, twirling mustache and broad shoulders, but his bug eyes were friendly. Once past the imposing size, you realized he offered a welcoming smile. In other words, the sort of genie you wouldn’t mind having a beer with, if you found a bar with a mile-high ceiling.

I am at your service, Master. You may request one wish and one only. I must warn you, however. The maker of this lamp wanted certainty that no one would use it to cause harm. He therefore required me to tell its possessor this: any wish that would damage another will produce the same injury to the person who makes it.

The genie took a deep breath before speaking again:

OK, now you’ve heard what my maker demanded I tell you. But, over my 3000-year career, I’ve had lots of time on my hands when the lamp lay undiscovered. So, you should know — I took a junior college course in psychology and dabbled with becoming a therapist. What I’m trying to communicate is this: I will give you 50-minutes to discuss possible choices before you decide; breakfast included, no extra charge!

With that, the food appeared. “Wow,” said Ralph. “Thank you so much. I never persuaded Fox to go to marital counseling and she almost never cooks, so this is great! I kind of thought I should enter therapy myself, but never had the time.” Ralph didn’t receive consideration often. His, interest in talking was as much for the semi-human contact with a congenial genie, as to help him decide how to use the gift of the lantern.

“So, what’s on your mind?” asked the ancient apparition. The human proceeded to describe his marital life and his wife’s bankrolled journey to glamour, emphasizing her regular side trips to his personal complaint department. The ageless magic creature listened patiently.

Wow, Ralph said to himself. No one interrupted me.

“Well Ralph, have you considered returning your wife’s body to its pre-surgical status? No problem at my end.”

“No, I don’t want to do that to her. She ‘d be depressed and never forgive me.”

“OK, how about if I make you as handsome as she is beautiful?” offered the genie.

“No,” said our hero again, “She’s never been bothered about how I look. My appearance is the only thing she accepts. Besides, she’d adjust to any change.

Ralph looked away. “I don’t think there is a solution.”

Ralph quieted, despairing. The genie, out of ideas, offered nothing more.
 
Then the unlikely Master came alive to his power: “You know, here’s what I want. It would be amazing for Fox to see herself in the mirror. Not the outside, external stuff, but the inside: to fathom how self-involved she is and how she is never satisfied. How much I love her, too.”
 
“One minute of self-awareness, please. I hope to change her forever. Can you do it, genie?”
 

“Sure, Ralph. Bring her here tomorrow before dawn. I’ll need a hand-mirror, as well. Your wish will be granted.”

Ralph spent an anxious day and a sleepless night waiting for the morning. It took some doing to persuade Fox to rise early for the promised beach visit, especially because her eye sensitivity caused avoidance of sunny places. But she was intrigued by her husband’s request. He assured her they would only be there for a short while past sunrise.
 
The next day came, while Sleeping Beauty dreamed of a luxury car or a trip to France, either one a fulfillment of her husband’s enticement.  The couple thus traveled in a state of quiet uncharacteristic of her, preoccupied as she was by her material fantasies.
 

As instructed by the man of the lamp, Ralph carried a small satchel and walked with Fox to the empty beach. The genie reduced his stature to nestle in Ralph’s ear, where he whispered precise instructions.

Our hero laid out a large towel and requested his wife to sit facing the water. The lamp stayed in the handbag, as Ralph removed the glass, asking the beauty to take off her shades, then hold the mirror to her face. “Oh, Ralphie, are you going to put a necklace on me?”
 

Now came the dawn. In an instant Fox saw not her a reflected image of expensively achieved features, but a self-interested personality in its self-unforgiven ugliness. By the fifth second, she realized how vain and narcissistic she was. In the eighth she became aware of the chronic unkindness she visited on her family.

One quarter of the way to the end of time, a shaft of insight displayed the likeness between the neglect Fox suffered as a child and the identical indifference she dispensed to her children. Half-way through she could no longer justify her affair.
 
At 40 ticks a psychic bombshell penetrated her defense against the emptiness of her existence.
 
In the last 10 seconds of her single minute of self-awareness, the once friendless girl no longer dismissed how much she had hurt her husband, who — it occurred to her — loved her more than anyone. At second 60 — crying the non-stop, can’t-catch-your-breath tears of catharsis — Fox’s heart broke and stopped beating. She collapsed in Ralphie’s arms, already dead.
 

For an instant — enough time for a horrified, heart-rending sigh and the formation of a single tear — Ralph stared at the devastation wrought by his attempted salvation of his marriage. His wish was innocent: to make Fox as beautiful inside as her oft admired face and form; a person whose acquired self-awareness would morph her into the compassionate, loving wife and mother Ralph and his children yet ached for.

But his gasp signaled only the dawn of Ralph’s own insight, just as the genie warned earlier, as unexpected by Ralph as his wife’s tortured demise.

In the first second he realized how weak he had been with Fox; by the 10th, how much he failed to provide their children with a strong role-model. Thirty-seconds on, penetration of the word ENABLER knocked him back into the sand.

Though the day was still new, Ralph’s consciousness sensed a curtain lowering on creation. He saw a sign emblazoned on an antique gate: ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE. In his slow-motion entry to hell, Ralph perceived himself as an indulgent Dr. Frankenstein. He was the creator of a monster, one surgery at a time: the man whose life would have been different if he had learned to say “no.”

At the end of Ralph’s single minute of enlightenment, his heart also stopped. He slumped over his deceased wife, closer than they had been during life.

The last moment of Dr. Frankenstein’s descent, before his heart broke, revealed that he and Fox were not ill-matched at all. In fact, they were perfectly matched, as if made for each other, like a custom measured and cut glove, sewn to fit one’s hand.
 
Fox could not have become “herself” without Ralph, and Ralph could not have fulfilled his potential to be a good-hearted, but beaten dog without her. An evil genius lay within himself, all the same.
 

Like two intimately bound elderly people in a long marriage, the scientist and his creation had to die close in time. One could not live without the other, if indeed they ever lived.

The genie crawled out of Ralph’s right ear. He assumed his full height and stood over the wreckage of the magic lamp’s too illuminating wish-fulfillment.

Gosh, this never happened before, he thought to himself. Criminy. Maybe I need to get out of this business. Three-thousand-years is enough. I don’t want another catastrophe.

Back in the day, I wanted to be a therapist.

Hmm.

The phantasm crawled back into his lamp, lost in his own lostness.

He’d been so focused on the wishes of others, he never created a decent Plan B.

The top image is a poster for the Mel Brooks’ film Young Frankenstein. The Arabian Nights Entertainments by Milo Winter, published in 1914 by Rand McNally and Company is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The final image is a Magic Lamp.

 

Dr. Frankenstein and the Curse of Self-Awareness

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Does self-awareness bring happiness? Most people seem to believe their portion of self-awareness is sufficient for contentment. Others don’t think about the question. The latter live without much excavation of what is deep in the cavernous underground of their psyche.

I intend to write more about this subject, but will introduce the topic with the story of two people who don’t know themselves well. After reading, you might ask yourself how much self-awareness you possess and whether it improves your life.

My take on the subject may surprise you.

If you watched Ralph for 30 minutes straight and walked away, you would be unable to describe him. He was a man with no distinguishing qualities: not too heavy, not too thin; not too much hair (if there is such a thing), but not bald either; a man of indifferent facial features rendering him unremarkable. Although mega smart, his eyes displayed no light or life. Indeed, his brain’s powerful wattage came as a surprise and then only after you’d gotten to know him.

Nor did withdrawn Ralph have many friends; wait — any friends. Vocation became all. If I gave you the name of what he did, you probably wouldn’t comprehend it. Suffice to say, this brainiac possessed a specialized knowledge of something to do with physics. Still, if one is preoccupied by such arcane, abstract, and technical work — a marginalizing kind of territory — conversation is hard.

What Ralph did have, to the shock of anyone who met his family, was a knock-out wife named Fox. And, funny enough, she resembled Megan Fox: equally sultry, but more curvaceous, with hair so black you wondered if it came from a bottle of dye. Indeed, Fox existed as a woman to die for. Ralph was close to fulfilling the expression’s prediction: dying inside because of her.

The honeymood period had been different. This woman only now devoted her life to turning heads. She observed men to see if they ogled, and so they did. The throng turned toward her, where she once blended unknown and unnoticed into every crowd.

When they married, Fox was as plain as white bread. Much like Ralph, in fact. Maybe I’m being too kind to her. Her nose reminded one of a driver frozen in place at a four-way traffic stop, unable to decide which way to go. Her jaw was too small, so her bottom teeth bunched up, like a classroom of eager students all raising their hands. Her “bum” was absent — one of the many straight, boyish lines on a body screaming for curves.

This young woman’s ear lobes had been marred by a failing intern at a bargain “piercing shop.” The cretin used something like a train conductor’s punch to do the job. Meanwhile, her oversized, protruding ears (as if ready for takeoff) created a human likeness to Disney’s Dumbo. Fox’s feet made grace of motion a challenge, too. Topping everything, the delicate dear-one’s sensitive eyes responded with pain to sunlight, requiring an almost vampire-like avoidance of the summer outdoors. In total, this woman appeared a mess on the outside, while her insides couldn’t help noticing and sent out distress signals.

Given the lady’s neediness, perhaps Ralph’s arrival falls into the “meant to be” category. She struggled to reach for a top shelf grocery item and asked for his aid. When he provided the assistance she started chatting him up, telling him the details of her miserable life. “Oh my God, thank you. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t been here to get the Cheerios. I always have such trouble with these things. No one ever seems to give me the time, so sometimes I go without.”

Fox went on and on. The relationship might have been different, if only lonely Ralph had been a more confident and not so good-hearted. A woman eager for his company should not be ignored, he thought. Soon they were sitting together in the supermarket’s cafe. He still listened and she still filled the conversational carbon dioxide with her ill-fated history. The pattern had been set.

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Ralph couldn’t help but notice two things. First, she enjoyed talking to him. Second, he garnered appreciation despite doing almost nothing. Our fellow’s muteness around women mattered not. Since Fox engaged in endless monologue, he found an uncommon ease in being with her.

A third idea occurred to this Everyman, too: he pitied the injured creature. The recitation of her life disappointments touched him. The masculine heart broke as he auditioned the ugly duckling disses she described, her parents’ neglect, and the absence of outstanding qualities in a world demanding them.

Ralph looked beyond Fox’s outsides to the “poor girl” insides he saw on the newsreel of sorrow she re-ran. They became a couple. At first, Fox was overjoyed for a boyfriend — one who would listen to her! Ralph wanted a girlfriend just as much, so it seemed inconsiderate to begrudge the woman he loved for her uncontrollable regurgitation of life’s raw indignities. Besides, she seemed grateful he’d drop anything for her, and he felt wanted and purposeful in being able to better this woman’s life.

Marriage inevitably followed courting. Children inevitably followed marriage. Challenges inevitably followed children. “Oh, Ralphie, look at what Molly (their two-year-old) did. I’m too totalled-out to clean up the mess. Can you take care of it, Ralphie?” What could the dear man do? He’d come home from work “totalled-out” himself, but Fox needed rest. Their daughter couldn’t be alone to create further disorder, Ralph said to himself.

As time passed Fox came to treat our boy’s devotion as an entitlement, treat Ralph’s patient listening as an entitlement, treat Ralph’s bread-winning and housekeeping and childcare as an entitlement.

The miserable male consoled himself. She’s had such a hard life, he thought. She’ll soon snap out of it. Maybe if I can do more, things between us will be good again. “Good,” meaning back to the time Fox offered gratitude and the kids were distracting her husband from focusing on her. Then, one day, she asked for something new.

“Ralphie, my doctor says he knows a foot specialist who can fix my feet so it’s not so hard to walk. Wouldn’t that be great? We can afford that, right Ralphie? How about it?”

Well, you know Ralph. Refusal of a reasonable request was unthinkable. He achieved an abundant living and knew it. It was the least he could do for the woman he loved and the mother of his children.

Although Fox had to go through a difficult period of recuperation, the surgery made walking the natural, unconscious thing it is for most young people. Once the healing advanced, her surgeon recommended training in ballet. Ralph’s wife became the embodiment of grace, a creature whose movement across space was streaming and seamless — something to behold.

For a brief period the spouse was even grateful to Ralph, but within a few months wretched routine resumed. Customary indifference and lack of approbation were Ralph’s daily bread, duly accepted. Until, of course, the next thing Fox wanted.

“Ralphie, my doctor says he knows a plastic surgeon who can fix my schnoz. Wouldn’t that be great? We can afford that, right Ralphie? How about it?”

Ralph didn’t jump at this suggestion quite as fast as the idea of taking Fox’s feet to the repair shop. Moreover, he’d grown to like the way Fox’s nose couldn’t seem to make up its mind about the best route to take from its bridge to her nostrils.

Still, she was the woman he loved and the mother of his children. Before too long, Fox had a nose to die for. Straight, not too big, not too small; “just right,” as Goldilocks would have said. Fox spent hours staring at her proboscis in the mirror, admiring the surgeon’s craft and her enhanced appearance: what you might call attractive if your standards for beauty weren’t too high.

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Sex, however, didn’t improve. Romance had never sizzled, but Ralph accepted what his companion offered. Since he’d never had intercourse with anyone else, for a long time it satisfied. Now, however, frequency diminished. Fox also made it more “conditional.”

Let me explain.

The wife complained of headaches and exhaustion — both words sometimes uttered when the other is preoccupied with something else, their brain is somewhere else, and they only wish their partner were elsewhere, too. Fox had an ever-changing, ever smaller list of body parts available for touching, and a growing catalogue of forbidden sex acts. These, she claimed, might cause a brain hemmorhage.

“The Mayo Clinic will prove it. Take me there, you’ll see!”

He didn’t. She’d won the point.

For his part, Ralph began to think of Fox’s torso as a terrain undergoing lots of highway and road repair. He imagined her naked physique covered with little CAUTION and DANGER signs: arrows indicating detours, and tiny flagmen waiving him right or left, but always into a dead end. The helpless bloke wished for the radio traffic reports one hears every 10 minutes, desperate for guidance to the least hazardous routes. Alas, no station carried the needed updates on Fox’s body map. All Ralph got was static.

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Other than when Ralph kissed Fox on her rear end (which she loved but left him cold), ardor was ever more frustrating for our Mr. R. Indeed, as Fox transformed into a fox, the limitations multiplied and the frustration grew.

Attempts at sex caused a mindset akin to days without food, knowing the closest restaurant took a three-hour drive and remained open for just 15 minutes beginning at 3 AM every other week; and the food was cold and tasteless and they never had what you wanted on the menu; and the wait staff were impatient and complained and banged around with pots and pans while you were trying to eat; and the servers were pestering you to hurry up because they were closing soon.

Well, you won’t be surprised when I tell you the surgical requests kept coming. They took the usual form: “Ralphie, my doctor says he knows a surgeon who can do ‘X.'” Next came a complete reworking of her jaw, mouth, and teeth; later breast implants, buttock rounding, and cheek inserts. Botox injections targeted a variety of places. An “ear job” followed to close up the holes left by the conductor’s punch and pin them back so that they didn’t stick out. Soon Fox requested an alteration of her hairline, in addition to lots of consultations with makeup artists, skin specialists, and hair stylists.

The family’s dull doll became unrecognizable — movie-star beautiful. She also transformed into a one-woman cheerleading squad for the wonderful doctor who picked out the best people to work their magic; with not a word about Ralphie, the guy who paid the surgeons and kept doing everything else he’d always done — ever faithful, ever devoted, ever taken-advantage-of, all-day-sucker Ralphie.

Nor was the new “arm candy” an unalloyed benefit to him. Ralph was told he was a lucky hombre, but overheard strangers wondering about the ill-matched “FR” pair. Someone would take her away from him, they guessed.

By the time Fox reached her early 40s, her physical transformation was complete. She passed for 30, at most, and pursued a life unimaginable during her frumpy, freaky, friendless teens. The kids both attended college out-of-state and Ralph never stood in the way of what she wanted. Ralphie earned a fine salary, she rationalized. In fact, however, he worked overtime to pay for the kids’ tuition, the old doctors’ bills, and Fox’s impulse purchases.

With fewer responsibilities due to the the children’s departure and no more surgeons to consult, the manufactured femme fatale realized she missed her divorced doctor, the man she so idolized: the person who guided her to achieving her new, traffic-stopping, stunning state of being. Their meetings started when she dropped in at his office, unannounced, and said hello. Soon they scheduled lunches. Long ones. Ralph couldn’t help but wonder if something was happening.

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One day at sunrise, while Fox slept in and the provider was taking a rare vacation day, he drove to a nearby beach. As a young man, when he was the friendless class nerd, he’d walk along the lake front, let the sun soothe him, and nursed his malaise. Sometimes it worked. The sound of the waves and the warmth of the rays eased his craptastic condition. Perhaps he got lost in a fantasy of winning an adoring girlfriend who would become his wife.

How did things gone so wrong, he wondered? The stillness of the deserted beach provided no comfort. “What can I do? I still love her.” Ralph was talking aloud. “If only I can regain what we had on our first day in the grocery.”

Ralph’s right foot caught on something and he fell on his face, eating a mouthful of sand and pebbles. Disrespect everywhere. Not even the beach likes me, he thought.

As Ralph got up he noticed the object he tripped over. A hard item protruded from the otherwise flat surface. He pulled at it: a golden Middle Eastern style lamp. Scuffed and dented, it nonetheless looked as though it had once been a fine product of the metal artisan’s craft. Ever prepared to do cleaning, the Sad Sack took out his handkerchief and tried to shine it up a bit.

That’s when the genie appeared.

For the conclusion of this story, go to Dr. Frankenstein and the Curse of Self-Awareness: Part II (Conclusion).

The top photo is of Megan Fox, by Luke Ford. Next comes Girlfriend and I by Christian Reusch. That is followed by Beauty and the Beast by Giovana Milanezi, uploaded by Johnny MrNinj and a Singapore Road Sign by Woodennature.  Deep Sadness by Erik Charlton is the fifth image. All are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Price of Humility

Humility is generally thought to be a positive characteristic. Let’s consider this a little more carefully.

From the centuries-old teachings of the Catholic Church, one reads that there are “seven deadly sins:” wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony. Even without such a list, however, young people are often taught to be humble and not boastful.

They are instructed not to call too much attention to themselves, not to be full of themselves or too proud. Arrogance, excessive self-love (narcissism), hubris — all are viewed negatively and point to the notion that you are not as good as you think you are and therefore should not become “too big for your britches.” In effect, the message is, be modest and you will be fine.

But.

Yes, I know, there is always a but.

An example illustrates why I am a hesitant endorser of humility in all things. My seventh grade Chicago Public School home room teacher gave us an interesting assignment. In one of the marking periods (there were four per semester) each of us was to write down the grades that we believed we should receive for the term — what marks we felt we deserved. Up until that time I was something of a humility addict. Whether from home or elsewhere, I’d learned not to toot my own horn, not to draw attention to myself, and certainly not to overstate my accomplishments.

The strategy had worked pretty well up to that time. But, I did not see that it created the potential for trouble ahead.

I dutifully delivered the grades, having understated most, if not all of them. What difference did it make, I thought? The teacher would assign the bona-fide grades, of course, based on the work we had completed, our test scores, and so forth.

Some time later, we received our real marks. And, wouldn’t you know it, my instructor had given me exactly the evaluation I assigned to myself. Since I was enormously invested in my school performance, I was crushed. I seem to recall that each kid had a mini-conference with her up at her front desk. I don’t remember what she said to me, but the grades stood, at least until the next marking period, when she would not be influenced by any external opinions. Nevertheless, I’m sure that I was mad at myself for having understated my worth.

As miserable as she made me feel, this woman did me a great favor. In fact, there probably was no better way to deliver the message: don’t diminish yourself, don’t minimize your accomplishments, don’t be self-effacing. If you cannot be your own best advocate, why should you expect anyone else to advocate for you? While you needn’t trumpet your attainments to the farthest reaches of the earth, neither should you hide them under a rock.

There is a price to excess humility, just as there is a price to the extreme of any human characteristic, not just the seven deadly sins: too much confidence or too little, too much risk-taking or not enough, a naive excess of trust or a cynical absence of confidence and faith in others, and so forth.

My teacher is almost certainly deceased. But, if I could, I would thank her for her instruction in the price of a surfeit of humility.

Ironically enough, her name was Miss Price — my seventh grade teacher at Jamieson School.

The image above is Kandinsky’s Composition V.

Are You Narcissistic?

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Have you ever been called a narcissist? What does that mean? Let me offer you an image that might help you understand it.

Imagine that you are standing in front of a mirror, but at some distance from it. You can see yourself, but you can also see a great many other things around and behind you. Now envision yourself walking toward the mirror.

If you get close enough, you will see only one thing: yourself. It is not necessarily that you are indifferent to whatever else might be behind and around you; rather, you are so taken with your own likeness, that you become unaware of other people nearby and how they might be faring.

That is narcissism: a fascination with and almost exclusive focus on yourself. The word comes from the Greek myth about an unusually attractive young man named Narcissus, who falls in love with his reflection in a pool, not aware that he is looking at his own image. Inevitably he perishes because he cannot get over this preoccupation.

At the extreme, too much narcissism becomes a Personality Disorder. That means it is a pattern of behavior and internal self-involvement that is rigidly pervasive and leads to problems in relating to others. People who suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder tend to lack empathy for others; they are grandiose in their inclination to overestimate their worth. They usually assume that others will not only share in this high appraisal of their value, but treat them accordingly. Indeed, they expect to be admired and take that admiration as an entitlement.

The word insufferable comes to mind.

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Such people believe that the rules that apply to most others might not apply to them because of their special qualities. Nor do they clearly see the injuries that they inflict on others; or show empathy even when such injuries are brought to their attention. If you are useful to a narcissist, able to help him advance his agenda, then he will probably want you around.

At the moment that you are no longer of value, however, or have been replaced by someone deemed better or more useful, you are in danger of being set aside or discarded.

The narcissist tends to have fantasies of great achievement or idealized love and exploits others. And when his behavior fails to lead to the result that he believes is his due, it is rare for him to fully recognize and take responsibility for that failure. Without that awareness, circumstances and other people are blamed, and he is likely to continue on the same unfortunate path indefinitely.

And to answer the question posed in the title, given the blind spot just mentioned, if you are narcissistic, it is unlikely that you will so identify yourself.

Initially, you might find such a person dashing, enormously self-confident, and appealing, perhaps even a visionary — definitely a big personality. Closer and more frequent contact, however, begins to reveal the dark side. Loving someone else is difficult for the narcissist, who is already in love with himself.

Do you need an example?

At least as he has been represented in the press, the Governor of South Carolina will serve that purpose. Obviously, one cannot diagnose him or anyone else on the basis of news accounts, but they suggest that he might fill the bill.

He is said to be taken with himself, preoccupied with his achievement and appearance, and fancies himself (and his South American lover) as sharing some sort of idealized, almost mythic love. Meanwhile, in the course of his affair, the wife and kiddies back in the States were set aside; even his responsibilities to his constituents were ignored, as he took secret trips to visit his girlfriend, leaving South Carolina without anyone in charge while he was away.

I suspect that you know some people who are pretty full of themselves and might have some of the other characteristics I’ve mentioned.

Want to change them?

Good luck.

Personality Disorders of this kind are not easily altered. Indeed, such people rarely see the need for treatment — their reflection in the mirror looks more than good enough to them. Self-awareness is not one of the narcissist’s strengths.

No, change won’t come easily.

A better question to ask yourself would be the following: why would you WANT to be with him?

The painting at the top of this essay is Narcissus by Francois Lemoyne, from 1728, sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second image is Caravaggio’s take on the same subject (1594-1596), from the same source.