Rather than wanting to make the most of life, I have always felt strangely obliged to do so, in the same way I feel obliged to eat vegetables, despite not really liking them. While I understand why it’s good for me to eat food that I dislike but tastes like Astroturf, I don’t know why I spend so much time trying to optimize my life. Unlike Broccoli, self-optimisation isn’t good for you.
Recently I have begun to grow tired of this self-obsession and decided instead to view things less partially, less doggedly. I feel that the world has been languishing too long in the shadow of my ego.
All this reminded me of the story of Diogenes and Alexander. Legend has it that Alexander the Great went to visit the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope. Alexander found Diogenes lying lazily on the ground and, standing over him, asked if there was anything he wanted. “Yes,” replied Diogenes, “stand a little out of my sun.” In my mind, Alexander is my ego and I am Diogenes.
Personally I’m not convinced that this story is true. Had I been Diogenes I would have been less cavalier when dealing with a world-conquering maniac. Still, if Alexander really did look like the bloke in the picture above then maybe Diogenes had little to fear. I mean, have you ever seen a man with such a daft, chinless face and standing so effeminately? Surely this can’t be the man who conquered all those lands? Either the Persians were rubbish fighters or the artist chose his model very carelessly.
Whatever. The point is that constantly thinking about yourself and how to optimise your life is, to use a word my Japanese students like, ‘troublesome’. It’s like schlepping around a huge stone that you would like to put down but feel you shouldn’t. Yet when the sheer tedium and pettiness of always thinking about yourself finally strikes home and you let the stone fall, you feel like Sisyphus released from his pointless duty of rolling a boulder up and down a hill.
I can understand why Barack Obama or Bibi Netanyahu might feel that they are important since their decisions affect millions of people. However, it would be neurotic for most others to believe the same. Of course, you could still think that your actions are important to you, but even this is a matter of choice. If you choose not to think of yourself as the hub of your own private universe but instead as a grain of sand in a huge desert, or a drop of salt water in a mighty ocean, that’s also your choice. There is no ‘fact of the matter’ in any of this.
Self-obsession is also an impediment to love. If you are self-centred then you will probably feel isolated and want to overcome your loneliness. Yet your chosen partner may just be viewed as a means to an end. As long as you remain focused on yourself and your needs, I think it is almost impossible to love someone.
People who are not self-obsessed tend to be popular. They are less bothered about making mistakes and worry less about what others think of them. And because their attention is directed outwards at the world rather than inwards at themselves they tend to be good conversationalists: they take an interest in things unrelated to them. Conversely, attention-seekers are less popular because they tend to drone on about themselves. I think this was perhaps the moral behind Groundhog Day: every day of Bill Murray’s character’s life was the same until he managed to free himself from his self-obsession and think about others.