I’m working on becoming a more selfish (autocentric) person, and it’s a long process with no end in sight.
I have been getting better at dealing with my image this summer. I suppose this has been the best summer I’ve had in a while, and this is mostly because I have felt almost entirely in control of how things pan out. There are no unaccounted-for variables, bugs in the code, missing semicolons, unbracketed while loops, to throw off the whole program, report only a blank, anxious screen. I had been for weeks haunted by the memories of previous summers, almost as if my body can tell that at this very time last year I was in great distress over things I could not understand until they happened, weird whispers in the allegedly empty corridors of my mind, telling me “things are not as they seem,” dismissed as irrational until things were indeed not how they seemed. Bumping into ghosts who refuse to materialize, who would rather stay shrouded by the memories which sustain them than realize that their ghostliness, their ghastliness, is itself an illusion. Looking up whether or not I can hypnotize myself into forgetting someone. Trying to distract myself from my thoughts, from the inquest of my memories, using other people’s voices, Black women podcasters, even when they are talking about things I don’t care about (celebrity gossip), liberal alarmist pundits, squawking like stir-crazy parrots, BBC reporters speaking in received pronunciation tinged with pity and notes of guilt about mudslides killing hundreds in Sierra Leone and a massacre in British India whose memory is only remembered by the very old, whose trauma wrote itself and writes itself, today, into a people’s genes. As I flip the pages of a book I’ll never read, turning its yellowing sheets, careful not to tear the tome as it sits in the German scanning machine in the moist room in the basement of a library that resembles and feels as dour as a church, I can’t help but think about the partition in my life which I have built, the constant tug-and-shove between the two versions of the self which struggle with one another to fit within a body which seems never to be enough – the self which exists for itself, and the self which exists in relation to, and for the satisfaction, approbation, of others.
When my mother would call me selfish as a child, it was because I often did things without thinking about the ways my actions would affect others, namely my father. I would eat foodstuffs that he had bought specifically for himself, thinking “if I only eat a little bit, he will never know.” And when you do this several times, it becomes apparent when there is nothing left that someone has betrayed his trust. I learned from a young age that I am a bad liar, and therefore I stopped lying altogether, not only because I could always be found out, but also because I found that the prospect of lying only deferred me further from a truth I didn’t myself want to accept. “I ate it because I was hungry,” a lie, for I likely wasn’t hungry. I rarely ever remember feeling hunger in my childhood – only the bangs of boredom. Now that my stomach seizes into a knot when it is empty, bile bubbling to the basin of my esophagus, I have a renewed understanding of what hunger means.
My mother would interchange the word selfish with inconsiderate, a word which in retrospect more accurately addressed her feelings. It was inconsiderate of me to eat or take things without asking, to assume that things were for everyone, or that because they were not hidden from me (as my parents often did with certain foods they wanted for themselves) that they were therefore up for grabs. I would not think about how much I was taking, for I would rarely take too much at one time, but would always return, out of boredom, to get a napkinful more until slowly but surely there was none left. It was inconsiderate of me to take without thinking “who else would like some of this?” or “has my dad, who bought this, had his share yet?” Yet, it was not selfish. I did not purposely say “I deserve this. I should have this” as much as I would say “I feel hollow.” Inconsideration is the unawareness of the repercussions of one’s actions as they relate to others. It is a trait marked by its passiveness. People cannot be purposeful inconsiderate, for I am of the opinion that we can’t really unsee the world around us. Selfishness is, however, an active disregard for the opinions or desires of others. It is the pudgy 16-year-old Xavier saying “Screw my dad, I want this now,” a thought which never materialized, even during the years when a growing mutual enmity wedged itself between us. I found that people’s inability to understand me bothered me, for I looked at my mother, who at the time may have been by closest friend, and found it hurtful that she would cast judgment on me without thinking about how I viewed the world, without understanding that I do not operate out of malice, but out of ignorance, out of inconsideration. I was unaware of many things as a child, took for granted nearly everything I had, and to a certain degree am still guilty of this. I still am, I’m sure of it, an inconsiderate person and it is an active process to undo, or at least better familiarize myself with, the ways that the things I do passively and without thinking affect those around me. But I do not think I am, or have ever been, selfish.
To be selfish, as I said, is to be actively self-centered. It is to exist entirely for the self in a way which is active and purposeful. It is saying “I want to eat this and I don’t care if the person who bought it doesn’t get any,” it is saying “I feel this way about the way things are transpiring and I don’t like it,” it is saying “I don’t want to be friends with you anymore.” It positions the first-person as the agent, removes the mysterious passive voice – “I don’t like you” vs. the silence of angry indifference, the self-mitigation, the “Who are you to change them?” pep-talks, the “You are not so perfect” self-griping. To be selfish is to preference the small dimension of one’s interiority over the shared cinematic universe in which one live with others, to go indoors completely and never come out. Being selfish is saying “Maybe you shouldn’t hang out with these types of people” instead of blaming myself for actions I did not do in malice, finding fault in the tone of my voice which others seem to find didactic or condescending when I have no intention of deigning to speak to someone or trying to educate someone. Being selfish is asking “how can you better understand and live with yourself?” not “how can you make yourself better understood and therefore capable of being loved?”
I often have to ask myself when I’m posting on social media (mostly Snapchat, the number of snaps I have posted and then promptly deleted before anyone could have seen it, for foolish reasons, is jarring) “who is this for?” A simple, almost meaningless question to many: “it’s for me, duh.” But I see social media (and all forms of communication, really, be them online or in person) as a means of existing and acting for others. For those who find this question simple to answer, the conflict of existing for others has likely never weighed down on their minds. It is simply a fact of being: the expectation of one’s contribution to human culture, of one’s willingness and need to feel as though they belong, to transmit a notion of belongness, to dictate, to draw the lines, which determine who belongs and who doesn’t. These people, whoever they are, may struggle to belong in their own ways, may carve niches for themselves, prove themselves veritable trailblazers, but for the masses who find their presence seemingly perpetually unwanted, who seem to never impress or amaze or anger or arouse the attention of others for reasons we cannot and dare not name, the question is startlingly difficult to answer. Is it for me? If it is, then why post? What satisfaction do I get from posting this? If I do not share this overdark photo of my bowl of phở, if I do not record this Ray BLK concert I am attending, if I do not snap a video of me watching the latest episode of Insecure, will any of these actions exist? Is memory alone enough to demonstrate the existence of what are now the social actions of being in certain spaces, of ingesting certain foods, of listening to certain kinds of music as they relate to the lives we build online? Do I have the audacity or the bravery to exist only as a physical being, as a flawed person, a flesh-and-bone creature whose body will never last? The reverse of these questions, the emboldened underline, the photo negative: And if I post it, and no one responds, no one likes it, no one shares it, does it still exist? Is it a “good post?” Should it continue to exist as a public entity? Should it be removed? Is it for others? Should I try to seek out what it is that others want to see? When I get comments and likes, should I try to emulate whatever it was that made that post unique, likeable, which meant that it afforded me a love, an admiration, an approbation, I sought by posting it in the first place? Will their affection run dry? Is this good enough for them? What if it isn’t funny/thought-provoking/charming/arousing/infuriating/quirky enough? Is this doing too much? What is enough?
I have weird phases of wanting to give up social media altogether, become one of those internet hermits who only texts people to invite them to drinks or study at the library. I envy those people, although they are remarkably rare. I envy them in the same way I envy people who can go for days without responding to a text, although I hate when this is done to me, mostly because I see it as inconsiderate. But perhaps it’s selfish – perhaps they look at the text and say “I’m not interested in talking to you now,” an act which I still found incensing, although now I understand people’s rationale for it. I recently got back on Twitter, and had a good run of getting likes and perhaps the occasional retweet before my luck ran dry and I began to think of the kinds of tweets that would garner a response and not what I genuinely wanted to say. In years past, oddly enough, I would go on spectacular tirades about the ills of the world to no response at all, and would feel remarkably unbothered by the radio silence, for I did not speak with the expectation of feedback, of hearing my own voice and mistaking it for an applause. I spoke out of anger and bile, and whoever read it read it, could do with it whatever they wanted. Tumblr was not much different. Posts which I thought were cool and edgy, which made me look like a purely deep and artsy person whose blog would and should encourage a follow from any trendy young passerby who happened to stumble upon it. And while my Tumblr existed for myself more than any other form of social media, it still had a public dimension I did not have the language to name or the power to reconcile. I found the number of porn blog robots following me disconcerting, and I began to wonder if there was something about my blog which made these blogs flock to me, made other bloggers run away in droves. I began to turn off the notifications for things, post and then close down the app, turn off my phone so I would forget I had posted something, only reminded when I opened it up and saw a shower of likes or nothing at all.
Now the big thing in my life is my career. I have never thought more about my future than I have this summer, during this great threshold, the calm at the eye of the storm. I have been thinking about how I can best reach the arbitrary career goals I’ve established for myself, how I can best profit from the resources at Yale, how I can maximize my productivity, turn shitty term papers into publishable articles, sanitize and professionalize myself. Flitting about the room in my mind, trying to get things in order while another version of myself stands by, shaking his head, saying “Why the rush?” It is not so much an issue of seeing the success of others and feeling discouraged, an issue which has in the past bothered me into acting, but it is the perpetual long-distance fear that I’ll somehow end up a nobody, that my work won’t get the prestige it deserves or that it requires in order to catapult me to where I want to be. The underlying desire I have noticed, murmuring in the background, just barely audible above the squawking and the hissing of other voices – “I want to be famous.”
It makes me feel egocentric and shallow to say this, although I think a lot of people feel this way. We crave the gratification that comes with being renowned and respected, with having people talk about your work and find it both universally pertinent and endlessly rich in its substance. Every rapper to ever come on the radio has likely had this dream, every TV star, every movie star; in that line of work, it seems only reasonable that someone would want fame, and while the fame of an academic and the fame of a celebrity are quite different, the underlying reality is that I want to be famous for my work, that I want to be renowned and make considerable waves in a disciple, integrate a space, bury a dated methodology and open the door for the next generation of scholars. It doesn’t do me any good to chide myself for my dreams, nor does it help me to worry about how self-centered and egoistic that may seem. It just have to listen to my desires and act on them, having faith in my id that it will not lead me astray, that it will not bring harm to those around me.
Fame, however, is irreconcilable with the reality I am envisioning for myself. Fame requires social acceptances or awareness of someone; it requires that people read my work, engage with it, talk about it, critique it, review it, etc. It requires a form of cultural acknowledgement which will nevertheless dictate something to me about my self-worth, which will inevitably skew the way I see myself as a person as a scholar.
I will repeat: This has been a good summer for me. It has been productive, both spiritually and professionally, and it has also been restful. I have a tendency to write very alarming things on this blog, although in reality, I think it bothers people that I am talking about my emotions and feelings and my mental health at all. It seems that this information is very taboo, and I’ve even be told that some people view reading that kind of information as an intrusion. For one, I think that that’s just an excuse to say that you don’t read this blog, and if you don’t, that’s fine, and if you do, I prefer, honestly, not to know. I get told by a significant number of people that my blog has influenced them, and I take solace in this, although I do worry at times to what degree I, in the background, work towards producing whatever content best suits or arouses or touches whoever reads it.
I have a hard time existing in social space, mostly because I think too much about what others think at the expense of my own feelings. I am an intuitive person whose sensitivity leads him to develop dangerously protean tendencies, and while I am working towards accepting and embracing these parts of my personality, it only fails me to think that the realization, the enunciation, of such a truth brings me any closer towards its integration into my being. I have learned this summer that I am an impatient person, that times seems to trickle by in my life, that I am at its mercy, and that I can’t seem to inch my way towards a perfectly productive workflow despite all of the projects in front of me. And instead of getting upset with myself, I am realizing that my reticence to do these things is not so much laziness as it is an inner awareness of my spiritual capacities; I can’t read for 9 hours straight, and that’s fine. I can’t write a blog post without editing, and I usually can’t do both in one sitting, and that’s fine. I can try to condition myself, but the reality is that I need to find solace in what I can do and begin structuring my life around positives and not negatives. I must train myself to embrace who I am, and who I have been afraid of becoming.
There is no word in our language, it seems, to describe a positive kind of selfishness. All of the related words, like egocentric, egotistical, self-centered, seem to bear a negative connotation, and therefore it is always frowned upon when a person thinks about themselves over others, even if doing so, for some, can produces nasty outcomes. We do not exist in relation to one another; when I am alone I do not cease to be, my existence is not conjured up by the presence of another person. Yet still, it seems that English does not have a word to describe a self-reorientation, save perhaps the rather obscure word autocentric which is perhaps so esoteric that it hasn’t yet acquired the same connotation as its near-synonyms. I have been using in various manuscripts the phrase “going inside” or “going indoors” to mean a retreat into one’s headspace, the beginning of a bout of pensiveness, of pre-anxiety.
It is important that we practice selfishness in ways which do not deliberately bring harm to others, I’d like to add. Some of the examples I gave above were malicious forms of selfishness used only to demonstrate a binary of thought around passive and active behaviors, but selfishness which is self-aggrandizing and self-preserving only hurts those around us. As much as I seek out ways to go inside, I cannot be fully disconnected from the social world. I am still reliant on and relied upon for the emotional support of others, and to act with the intent to hurt others violates the social dimension, even if it brings pleasure to the private. I would like to think that it’s common sense and not worth saying that we should actively love and respect one another, although recent events prove otherwise.
Photo: Saint Maurice, Matthias Grünewald