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 I eat things that are good for me but taste like Astroturf, I don’t know why I spend so much time trying to optimize my life. Unlike Broccoli, self-obsession isn’t good for you.
Recently I have begun to grow tired of this precious self-obsession and decided to try 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 to my Diogenes.
Personally I’m not convinced that any of this really happened. 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, or Scrooge after Jacob Marley tells him that it is still not too late to change.
I can understand why Barack Obama or Bibi Netanyahu might feel that they are important since their decisions and actions 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 your choice. There is no ‘fact of the matter’ in any of this.
Self-obsession is also an impediment in love. If you are self-centred then you will probably feel isolated and want to overcome your loneliness. Yet you will probably view the person who allows you to do so as a means to an end. As long as you remain mainly focused on yourself, I think it is almost impossible to love someone, at least for longer than the first infatuation. To be in love you first need to be able to be fascinated and enchanted by someone. Then you need to find someone fascinating and enchanting. To find such a person while you our full of yourself won’t help.
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.
On the other hand, attention-seekers are less popular because they tend to drone on about themselves. Chronically shy people underestimate themselves and so try to avoid drawing attention to themselves. Thus big-heads and chronically shy people are two sides of the same coin: both have an exaggerated sense of their own brilliance and awfulness respectively. The cure for both is to stop obsessing about themselves.
In short, becoming sick of yourself frees you to think about other things, just as it did for Phil Connors, Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day. Some people (Andy McDowell’s character in the same movie) naturally tend not to think that much about themselves. They are lucky. But others need to make the effort to keep their egos out of their light, just as Diogenes requested of Alexander the Great.