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


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.


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


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.


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 in some respects: very tall; with a long, twirling mustache and broad shoulders. But the creature’s bug eyes were friendly if you could get past just how imposing he was, and he had a welcoming smile. In other words, the sort of genie you wouldn’t mind having a beer with.

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

The genie then took a deep breath before speaking again:

OK, now you’ve heard what my maker required me to tell you. But, over the 3000 years I’ve been doing this work, I’ve had a lot of time on my hands in between people finding the lamp and making wishes. So, you should know that I once took a junior college course in psychology, and I’ve dabbled with being a therapist. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll dump this gig and get a real job. What I’m trying to get at is that if you want, I will give you 50 minutes of my time to discuss your possible choices before you make the one wish; breakfast included, no extra charge!

With that, the food appeared. “Wow,” said Ralph. “Thank you so much. I never could get my wife to go to marital counseling and she almost never cooks, so this is great! I kind of thought maybe I should go to therapy myself, but never seem to have the time.” Ralph was not used to anyone showing him consideration, so his interest in talking was as much for the semi-human contact with a congenial genie as it was to help him with the job of choosing how to use the gift of the lamp.

“So, what’s on your mind?” asked the genie. Ralph proceeded to describe his marital life and how his wife now had the appearance of a sex-pot, but no interest in him except to bankroll her lifestyle. The genie listened patiently. Ralph was definitely not used to that.

“Well Ralph, have you considered returning your wife’s appearance to what it was before? That would be no problem for me.”

“No, I don’t want to do that to her,” replied Ralph. “She would be so depressed and she’d never forgive me either.”

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

“No,” said Ralph again, “I don’t think that would make her appreciate me. She’s never been bothered about how I look. My appearance is probably the only thing she has accepted from the start of our time together. Besides, she’d get used to any change in that department pretty quickly and then the status quo would be reestablished, with her complaining about other stuff or asking me to spend money on her. No, I don’t think that is the answer.”

Ralph was quiet for a while, and it was clear that the genie had no more suggestions to offer. Then Ralph brightened: “You know, I think I figured out what I want. I’d like Fox to see herself in the mirror. Not the outside, external stuff, but the inside stuff. I’d like her to see how self-involved she is, how much she complains, how she is never satisfied with things as they are, and how much I love her. Just for one minute — one minute of self-awareness. Maybe that would change her forever. Can you do that, genie?”

“Absolutely, Ralph. Bring her here tomorrow just before dawn with a hand-mirror and it will be done.”

Ralph spent an anxious day and a sleepless night waiting for the morning. It took some doing to persuade Fox to get to bed early for the beach surprise he promised, especially because her eye and skin sensitivity caused her to avoid sunny places. But she was intrigued by Ralph’s request, he assured her they would only be there for a little while after the sun came up, and she thought maybe there was a luxury car or trip to France that he would spring on her. So, she came along the next day, uncharacteristically quiet in the short car ride to the sand and water, except for an occasional attempt to wheedle the surprise out of her husband.

As instructed by the genie, Ralph carried a small satchel and walked with Fox to the empty beach a few minutes before sunrise. The genie, who could make himself small, was resting in Ralph’s ear, where he whispered precise instructions. Ralph laid out a large beach towel and asked Fox to sit on it facing the water. The lamp stayed in the bag as Ralph removed the mirror and asked Fox to hold it to her face and take off her sun glasses. “Oh, Ralphie, are you going to give me some jewelry?” Then came the dawn.

In the first second, Fox saw in her reflected image not her finely drawn and expensively achieved features, but her personality as it really was. By the fifth second, she realized how vain and narcissistic she was. In the eighth she became aware of her lack of kindness. By the fifteenth, she concluded that she had been a poor mother, neglectful of her children. By second 30 Fox knew that she had betrayed Ralph with her physician and had no excuse for doing so. At second 40 she saw her life as empty, meaningless, and selfish. And in the last 10 seconds of her single minute of self-awareness, Fox realized how much she had taken advantage of and hurt her husband, who, it finally dawned on her, loved her more than anyone else in her life ever had or could. At second 60 — crying the non-stop, can’t-catch-your-breath tears of catharsis — Fox’s heart broke and then 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 sat staring at the devastation wrought by his attempted salvation of his marriage. His wish had been benign, after all — to make Fox as beautiful inside as she was on the surface; a person whose self-awareness would transform her into the compassionate, loving wife and mother Ralph and his children still ached for.

But his gasp signalled only the dawning of Ralph’s own self-awareness, just as the genie had warned and just as unexpected by Ralph as what he had witnessed in his wife. In the first second he realized how weak he had been with Fox; by the 10th, how much he had hurt his kids by not providing them with a strong role-model. Thirty-seconds into his minute of searing insight he recognized himself as an enabler. And in the final part of the 60 seconds that were played out in excruciating slow-motion — like pulling a band-aid off along with the skin to which it is attached — Ralph saw himself as Dr. Frankenstein, the creator of a monster, one body part at a time; and how much his life with Fox would have been different if he had learned how to say “no” and commanded more respect. At the end of Ralph’s single minute of enlightenment, his heart also stopped. He slumped over his equally dead wife; ironically, physically closer than they had been for some time.

In that last fraction of a second before Ralph’s heart broke, he finally figured out that he and Fox had not been badly matched at all. In fact, they were perfectly matched, as if made for each other, like a glove that has been custom-cut and sewn to fit one’s hand. They were so utterly wrong for each other that they were right. Fox could not have become “herself” without Ralph, and Ralph could not have fulfilled his potential to become a good-hearted, but beaten dog without her. Like two intimately bound elderly people in a long marriage, they had to die close in time. One could not live without the other.

The genie crawled out of Ralph’s right ear. He assumed his full height and stood over the wreckage of the magic lamp’s painfully illuminating wish-fulfillment. Gosh, this never happened before, he thought to himself. Criminy. Maybe I need to get out of the genie business. Three-thousand-years is enough. I don’t want this to happen again. And I’ve long wanted to be a therapist. What about marriage counseling?

Hmm. Let me think about this.

Maybe not.

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

If you looked at Ralph for 30 minutes and then 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 that made him virtually invisible. And although he was very bright, his eyes were dull. Indeed, his brain’s powerful wattage came as a surprise and then only after you’d gotten to know him for some time.

Nor did Ralph have too many friends; wait — any friends, really. He was too withdrawn for that. But Ralph was very good at his work, had the kind of attention to detail that it required. If I gave you the name of what he did, you probably wouldn’t know what kind of vocation it was. Suffice to say that Ralph had a very specialized knowledge of something to do with physics. But, if one is really good at such arcane, abstract, and technical work — and that’s all he is really knowledgeable about — it is pretty hard to maintain a conversation. That was Ralph, for sure.

But what Ralph did have, to the shock of anyone who met his family, was a knock-out wife named Fox. And, funny enough, she looked a bit like Megan Fox: equally sultry, but more curvaceous, with hair so black you wondered if it came from a bottle of dye. In a sense, Fox was a woman to die for. And Ralph was pretty close to dying inside because of who Fox had become.

It was not always so. Fox was only now a wife who gloried in turning heads, who lived for it. She looked at men to see if they were looking, and so they did. They now turned toward her, where once they had turned away.

When they married, Fox was really very plain. Much like Ralph, in fact. Maybe I’m being too kind to her. Her nose looked like it was at a four-way traffic stop and couldn’t decide which way to go. Her jaw was too small, so her bottom teeth were all bunched up, like a classroom of eager students all raising their hands at the same time. She had no “bum” to speak of and her chest was the proverbial carpenter’s dream — flat as a board. This young woman’s ear lobes had been marred at a bargain “piercing shop” that used something like a train conductor’s punch to do the job, and her ears themselves were similar to Disney’s Dumbo. Fox’s feet made walking gracefully a challenge. Topping it all off, Fox had fair, but sensitive skin and eyes that made bright light excruciating to the point of requiring an almost vampire-like avoidance of the outdoors on sunny days. In sum, she was something of a mess on the outside, while her insides couldn’t help noticing and sent out distress signals.

That’s how Ralph met her. She was having trouble reaching for a top shelf grocery item and asked for his help. 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 for me to reach the Cheerios. I always have such trouble with these things. No one ever seems to give me the time, so sometimes I just go without.”

It didn’t stop there. Fox just went on and on. If lonely Ralph had been a more confident, less good-hearted man, he might have gotten bored. But it had been a long time since a woman was eager to talk to him. Soon enough he and Fox were sitting in a cafe within the supermarket. He was still listening and she was still talking about all that was wrong with her life. The pattern had been set.

Ralph couldn’t help but notice two things. First, that she seemed to enjoy talking to him. Second, that he felt appreciated for what little he had done for her. Ralph was usually struck dumb around women, but since Fox was doing all the talking, he found an uncommon ease in being with her. There was a third thing too: Ralph pitied Fox. Her litany of life disappointments was a long one and Ralph’s heart broke a little for her. There were the ugly duckling disses she described, her parents’ lack of time for her, and the onus of having no outstanding qualities in a world that demanded them.

Ralph found that he could look beyond Fox’s outsides to the “poor girl” insides he saw on the newsreel of sorrow that she re-ran day after day. They became a couple. At first, Fox was clearly delighted that she had a boyfriend, and one who would listen to her, to boot! And Ralph wanted a girlfriend just as much, so it seemed to him a small price to pay that Fox regurgitated life’s unfairness to her regularly. Besides, she seemed grateful that he’d drop anything he was doing 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 Megan (their two-year-old) did. I’m just too totalled-out to clean up the mess. Can you take care of it, Ralphie?” What was Ralph to do? He was just home from work, pretty “totalled-out” himself, but Fox needed to rest and Megan couldn’t be left alone to create further disorder, as small children tend to do. As time passed, Fox came to treat Ralph’s help as an entitlement, treat Ralph’s patient listening as an entitlement, treat Ralph’s bread-winning and housekeeping and childcare as an entitlement: her appreciation for it all diminished correspondingly.

Ralph consoled himself. She’s had such a hard life, he thought. She’ll soon snap out of it. Maybe if I can just do a bit more, then things will be good again. “Good,” meaning back to the way they were when Fox was grateful and the kids weren’t demanding time and attention. Attention that Fox wanted for herself, although Ralph couldn’t admit this. Then, one day, Fox asked for something she’d never asked for before.

“Ralphie, you know, my doctor says that 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 by now. How could he refuse such a reasonable request? He was making a good living and he 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 did indeed make walking the natural, unconscious thing it is for most relatively young people. Her surgeon recommended training in ballet, once Fox was sufficiently improved. And, indeed, 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 Fox was even grateful to Ralph, but within a few months it was business as usual, with the expectations of Ralph that he had come to accept, along with the indifference and lack of approbation that was also the norm. Until, of course, the next thing that Fox wanted.

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

Ralph didn’t jump at this suggestion quite as quickly as he had to the idea of taking Fox’s feet to the repair shop. And, in fact, he’d grown to sort of 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, delicate even; “just right” as Goldilocks would have said. It was so beautiful that Fox spent hours just looking at herself in the mirror, admiring the surgeon’s craft and how much it had changed her appearance; made her even what you might call attractive, if your standards for beauty weren’t too high.

Sex, however, didn’t improve. Sex had never been great between Ralph and Fox. But Ralph accepted what Fox offered and, since he’d never had sex with anyone else, for a long time it seemed pretty good. Now, however, frequency was down and Fox had begun to make it more “conditional.” Let me explain.

Fox was less and less available. She complained of headaches, exhaustion — all the usual things that women say when they are preoccupied with something else, their brain is somewhere else, and they only wish that their husband were elsewhere, too. Fox had an ever-changing, ever smaller list of body parts that were available for touching, and sex acts that were permissible. For his part, Ralph began to think of Fox’s torso as a city undergoing lots of highway and road repair, between her surgeries and her restrictions on what he could and could not do. He imagined her body being covered over with little CAUTION and DANGER signs, arrows indicating detours, and tiny flagmen waiving him right or left or in a direction other than the one he wanted to take. He wished for traffic reports of the kind one hears on the radio every 10 minutes, so that he would know the least hazardous routes and how he might get from point P to point V. But no, no radio frequency carried traffic updates for Fox’s body. All Ralph got was static.

Other than when Ralph kissed Fox on her rear end, which she loved but left him cold, sex was increasingly frustrating for our boy. Indeed, as Fox gradually was transformed into a fox, the restrictions multiplied and the frustration grew. Attempts at sex became something like being very hungry, but knowing that the closest restaurant took a three-hour drive to reach and was only open for 10 minutes beginning at 3 AM every other week; and that 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 constantly reminding you to hurry up because they were closing soon.

Well, you won’t be surprised when I tell you that the surgical requests kept coming. Their form was always the same: “Ralphie, you know, my doctor says that he knows a surgeon who can do ‘X.'” Next came a complete reworking of her jaw, mouth, and teeth; then breast implants, then buttock implants, then cheek implants. Botox was injected into a whole variety of places including her lips. All this was followed by an “ear job” to close up the holes left by the conductor’s punch and pin them back so that they didn’t stick out so much. Then Fox requested an alteration of her hairline, in addition to lots of consultations with makeup artists, skin specialists, and hair stylists.

Fox became unrecognizable, but movie-star beautiful. And, curiously enough, she couldn’t stop raving about how wonderful her doctor was for picking out just the very best people to work their magic; with hardly a word about the fact that it was Ralph who paid the surgical bills and kept doing everything else that he’d always done — ever faithful, ever devoted, ever taken-advantage-of, all-day-sucker Ralphie.

Not even having Fox as “arm candy” was an unalloyed benefit to him. He surely did notice how people looked at her. Ralph was told that he was a lucky guy. But he also overheard strangers wondering about the ill-matched pair he and his wife had become. And he feared that someone would take her away from him.

By the time Fox reached her early 40s, her physical transformation was complete. She looked to be 33, at most, and felt like she could begin living the life she’d only imagined as a frumpy, freaky, friendless teen. The kids were both in college out-of-state and Ralph never stood in the way of what she wanted. Ralphie was making a very good salary, she rationalized, when she thought even a little about the financial consequences of her surgical make-over and wardrobe choices. But, in fact, he was working overtime when he could, to pay for the kids’ tuition bills, the old doctors’ bills, and Fox’s impulse purchases.

With fewer responsibilities due to the departure of the children and no more surgeons to consult, Fox realized that she missed talking to her doctor, the man she so idolized; the person who took such an interest in her and guided her to achieving her new, traffic-stopping, stunning state of being. The doc was now recently divorced. Their meetings started with her just dropping in to his office, unannounced, and saying hello. Eventually they scheduled lunches. Long lunches. Ralph couldn’t help but wonder if something was happening.

One day at sunrise, when Fox was still sleeping and Ralph was taking a rare vacation day, he took a drive to a nearby beach to try to figure things out. As a young man, when he was the class nerd who no one had time for, he’d go to the beach, let the sun beat down on him, and try to make sense of his present and plan for his future. Sometimes it worked. Sometimes the sound of the waves and the warmth of the rays took his mind off real-life. Sometimes he got lost in a fantasy of what his life could be, if only he had an adoring girlfriend who would eventually be his wife.

How had things gone so wrong, he wondered? The beach was deserted and the stillness provided no comfort. “What can I do? I still love her.” Ralph was talking to himself. “If only I could find a way to get things back to the way they were when we first met.” And then Ralph’s right foot seemed to catch on something and he fell on his face, eating a mouthful of sand and pebbles. Disrespect everywhere, he thought. Not even the beach likes me.

As Ralph got up, he noticed the thing that he tripped over. A piece of metal 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. Ralph took out his handkerchief and tried to clean 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.


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?

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.

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.