“To live an examined life is to make a self-portrait.”
–Robert Nozick, The Examined Life
Being arrogant got me halfway to where I am today. Becoming humble got me the rest of the way. Being humble put me onto a different way. But arrogance, strange to say, was a saving grace for a young boy like me. Without it, I doubt I would have come to adulthood unbroken or found the strength to carry on, in the gyrating world we unwittingly own, with the lightest of steps.
When I was a young boy, I was nearly always right. I was also the best at most things, especially those things at which I was best. I was faster, sharper, more quick-witted, more intelligent, and more attractive than the other boys. It probably didn’t hurt that I grew up in a small town where the classes were small and the world the length of a day’s walk. Truth be told, thinking well of myself, something I learned to do very well, was not entirely unwarranted. The available evidence did not, for the most part, tell against my conclusion that at school and sport I excelled.
Without need of a guiding hand or the requirement of gratitude, arrogance, ever the excellent host, freely arranged for the cultivation of strengths. If, for example, all the boys were doing one thing, surely they were dead wrong, and surely it would be better if I did the opposite. And so I did. This taught me to question the official story and to stand apart from common sense. But that is not all. I got good, despite all that swirled around me, at standing my ground; I could withstand pain not least because it could not make an entrance; I was inured to “bad press” and had no time for winning social recognition and no interest in boosting my reputation; I could let go, quite easily at that, of friends who no longer suited me and of ideas that had become rancid or tiring or fusty; most of all, I developed a sense of humor whose cudgel, sharp and direct and flinty, was justified by dint of the well-turned phrase (Dryden’s idea of wit: lopping off the other’s head unbeknownst to him).
When the time came, I would misread Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, would quote at length from Emerson about the heights of human greatness, and would read Ayn Rand with unironic relish. Indeed, arrogance made it possible to hold my head and neck so high that I was able to make it clean through the period in which the young are wounded and tortured and broken without bruises or scars to speak of. Arrogance, this naive art of forgetting, turned my adolescence and young adulthood into one short joke. I have a hard time remembering it still today, for memory needs tender hooks and none could be found.
For quite a while, nothing much changed. During my sophomore year of college, I read and loved Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Then, I praised Mr. Bennet’s irony and found unpalatable Mrs. Bennet’s fussy silliness. Today, it strikes me as noteworthy that I could pass over Elizabeth’s remark that “till now I never knew myself” in silence and that I could fail to see how foolish and reckless her father was and how concerned, albeit misguided and myopic, her mother. Also noteworthy was the fact that the novel’s most elemental moral lesson–namely, that the overestimation of my self-worth goes hand in hand with the underestimation of the worth of others; that is to say, that pride always appears alongside prejudice and prejudice alongside pride–escaped me.
Escaped me, that is, until I loved my beloved and my beloved, along with her love, went away. Escaped me also once my academic career went away well before it began. For now (here, reader, a note to make amends?), the particulars of both are less important than the results. Suffice it to say that from my mid-20s and into my early 30s, I finally learned and learned in a way that ran through all of me, through every last part of me, that I could hurt, truly and cruelly hurt someone else, someone I loved wholeheartedly; that even the tenderest of words–and my words were not all bad; they could be so tender–could recoil and reverse their meaning in an instant; that my greatest efforts at getting on in the world or at making it through the bustle could come to nothing, to absolutely nothing, to shit; and that–how painful it was to admit–I was not metaphysically independent of the will of others but dependent in numerous ways on their generosity and on their recognition of my talents and desserts. In a word, my sense of shame and humility, which followed from a life that began to tarry away from my projections of success and achievement and which came on, came over me slowly, caused me to re-evaluate my standing in the social world. It was a world from which I could not break free, to which I belonged, and upon which I must rely. But then, I realized also, the part I played was not so great, that of others not so minor. Humpf.
In this fall from high to medium, the temptation would be to regard myself as pathetic. (Summoning Tyler Durden: “You’re fuckin’ pathetic.”) But you know I didn’t. Tragedy, for the first time, gave my life measure and proportion, brought me back to right, opened me onto the world, and all without doing away with the virtues bestowed on me by a long education in arrogance. During this time of economic upheaval, my independence has served me well, having taken on an entrepreneurial shape; during a moment when others keep seeking, square pegs and round holes in hand, out the deadened academic life or the bloodless, hapless career, I imagined otherwise, trying out life (trying life out?) and finding god in all the small things; and as old verities and worn-out habits have been lost, I have summoned forth courage, walking, as one friend elegantly put it in one of his essays, nimbly backward into the future.
Few have been so lucky. The arrogant, blind to their chilling deeds, grow into cruel beasts dulled by bloodlust. Or, cocksure when young yet disappointed by age, they grow sour, so very sour that being in their presence for too long sours all you touch. Or–and this is perhaps the least worst fate–they become chatterboxes and long talkers who sequester you at parties and tell you stories that even boredom finds boring. The fate of the arrogant youth: to become cruel or sour or trivial. Since moving to New York, I have met them all.
Meanwhile, the young who never tasted arrogance came to loathe themselves. As they age, they feel their footsteps and cringe. Each step is a decision, each bit of earth uncertain. Wherever they are, they are, or so they feel, unwanted. The world, though not always unkind, is delicate, tentative, strange. And how are the self-loathing to breathe?
Toward the arrogant and the self-lacerating, toward those who take and those who cannot receive, now, with depth and clarity, now I pity them both. For me, pity is not the contrary of discrimination, not hubris by another name, not ressentiment of a different order, but the culmination of learning to discriminate–to taste as judiciously as possible the properties and nuances of another–pity a little gift.
I’m in my early 30s, and the humble life is sweet. The greatest blessings, like ripened cherries, I have felt because of this. To others, I have learned to attune myself: to their voices, to the mood, to their tenderest of needs. In their looks, I can sense a life and a hunger for another, another better, a better life around. My humor, also ripened, has begun to lighten the heaviness of life and, when necessary, to mock gently my pretensions to wisdom. Humility, a kind of eros, has brought others toward me and drawn me to them. To you.
To you now. Before you, dear reader, I want to sound soft-voiced, want not to praise myself but to pour libations onto the earth and throw salt into the sky. I want to wonder at how a haughty child could become a humble man. How, truly, is that possible? A story can be told and still another still but yet the mystery remains. If you feel the urge, go back with me now and re-read the hubris in the lines in which it lurks and leave some marks with me. I’m up for it if you are.