On limits and self-respect

Going to miss these kids

At a particularly low moment at the end of fall semester junior year, I sat on my housemate’s bed as she read aloud from Joan Didion’s “On Self-Respect.”

“Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself,” she began.

I cradled a mug of tea as she recited the instance of Didion’s first failure and its more brutal admission: the recognition that things would not always go according to plan.

It was the evening before my last final, one for which I no longer had the energy to study, a reality for which I no longer had the stamina to care, and my housemate had orchestrated this reading to help justify why this was not only okay, but right.

“The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others — who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without,” she continued. “To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that deals with one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening.”

I decided not to study that night, content with the fact that, in doing so, I was making a decision to respect myself. I went to bed early and did a light review over coffee and cereal the next morning before heading to my exam. It went just fine. Perhaps it would have gone (just a little bit) better if I’d done just a little more studying, uncertain as that outcome seems. But I wouldn’t have been better. As small of a concession as that might seem, it is the pattern of such small concessions that can lead to the feeling of powerlessness.

Over the course of the next semester and the year following it, I didn’t always respect my limits. Pushing them drove me more times than once beyond comfort and exhaustion, into a place of physical and emotional defeat. What’s more, it brought me to resent myself and to resent the external circumstances that I felt were propelling me into this state.

Perhaps I should have been more stringent with the limits that I set. But — what’s more important — in choosing to defy them, I needed to be making an active choice, instead of passively submitting to perceived pressures.

I don’t know anymore about conquering everything. I’ve felt too conquered in the past four years — by stress, by too-long workdays, by feelings of inadequacy and failed academic/social/extracurricular attempts, by unsatisfactory campus regulations and the persistence of unkindness and abuse — to maintain notions of total possibility, which now seem arrogant. I believe this is just the sort of loss of innocence that Didion wrote about. What I hope for now, though, is something brighter and more challenging in its own quiet way: I hope to exhibit confidence in my efforts, commitment in my endeavors and self-awareness in my resignations.

I think that this is especially important in a time of transition, because adjusting to new circumstances and reflecting on the old means re-evaluating your limits. Right now I am facing a big transition in my life, but I’ve faced big transitions in one form or another around this same time in each of the past three years, something that I think is true of everyone in their college years.

Self-respect is less grandiose than triumph or unending praise; it requires more of you and guarantees less from your environment. It matters deeply and truly only to you, and only you can assess whether you have it or not. But in the end, respecting yourself means facing your No. 1 person on equal terms. And that is something bigger than any external measure can bring.

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