Joan Didion’s essay On Self-Respect (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 142) is a beautifully-written essay about what self-respect is and what it really means. Didion’s tone is open and honest throughout and she uses it, along with thoughtful language and examples to skillfully establish her attitude, thoughts, feelings and her frustrations on the topic of self-respect.
This essay shined a new light on Didion for me and allowed me to see her and her work in a whole new way. While the topic of self-respect could have so easily lent itself to Didion talking down to her readers, it didn’t have the same pretentious tone I’ve come to expect from her essays. For me, it was a breath of fresh air and it caused me to view Didion in the same positive way I had when I was first introduced to her work. The title itself sounds pretentious and I honestly expected the tone of the essay to match and manifest itself into a lecture. But it didn’t.
Instead, I felt connected to what Didion had to say and, perhaps more importantly, to the way she was saying it. For the first time in what felt like a long time, I could relate to her and to her feelings, ideas and thought processes. To me, the essay shines as a powerful representation of how writing can help make us feel less alone in the world and gives us an opportunity to share the burden of our problems and our struggles with others as well as our hopes and dreams, too. One writer to another, I felt connected to Didion as I read her essay.
I love how Didion made her points through dissecting bits of culture and history and time. The line: “Self-respect is something our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about” stands out as a gem in that it’s something we can all understand and agree upon. We all have (or had) grandparents and, whether or not we have (or had) a personal relationship with our own, we each have a similar perception of what grandparents are like. Even if one has never met his or her own grandparents, we still maintain this ideal and hold them up to this sort of standard.
Similarly, by speaking of Indians, again Didion touches on something we all know or believe to be true based on what we’ve learned and/or been told and taught all along. Didion uses common knowledge, bits of history, relatable memories and information we all already know to make her points, perhaps the most poignant one being: “To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.”
Wow! I think that bears repeating, so here goes: “To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, singular power of self-respect.”
Didion makes broad sweeping points which consistently feel borderline pretentious (or maybe it’s my expectation more so than an actual feeling, though it’s sometimes hard to separate an expectation, once one has been established through repetition and experience, from an actual feeling) at times but then in this particular essay she follows up with examples and illustrations and then turns those examples and illustrations loose on herself to provide another emotional dimension that helps bolster her points and somehow makes her relatable and even likeable.
For example, she states: “That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth.” In that moment, I sighed audibly and probably even rolled my eyes and thought “oh here it comes” since I honestly believed I saw the next part—the pretentious and seemingly self-absorbed part where I feel talked at or spoken down to—coming. But, then she surprised me and followed that line by recounting a particular moment when she herself learned this lesson by breathing into a paper bag as an antidote to crying. Of course, breathing into a paper bag to stop hyperventilation is common knowledge (or at least common practice) but as a reader, I paused at this admission and thought “why was she crying?” She doesn’t go into the details in regards to the why but that doesn’t matter. In essence, the admission itself—the fact that there was a time when she was so distraught that she bordered on panic attack and needed to breathe into a paper bag—is to admit she’s human.
On that note, this essay spoke to me as one human speaking to another about an issue we all care about. We all want to be respected. But Didion is saying, something we all know is true, that first you must respect yourself and others. But what does that even mean?
Well, for one, at least for me as I read this essay, it meant me having a moment of clarity, revelation and self-reflection in which I had to pause and say “Okay, enough already, Val. Open your mind and read the essay without trying to guess where it’s going.”
Even if we dislike a piece of work, or even more so have decided to dislike the writer as a result of something he or she has written, we must choose to respect the act of writing and the writing itself for it’s a part of us, too. Disrespecting the writer is, in turn, disrespecting ourselves.
Once I realized this lesson on self-respect, I knew I needed to respect Didion and her writing style, too, despite any previous experiences, and read her essay with an open mind. I could see that I was being disrespectful—to her and to me—and deep down I knew it all along. If I wanted to learn from her and benefit in some way from her writing and from this experience I needed to set aside my griping and grumbling and pay her and her writing their due respect.
Doing so meant respecting my own writing, too, as well as my time and energy as a reader. But beyond that, it allowed me to set aside judgment and preconceived notions of taste in terms of style or delivery and instead to absorb Didion’s message and the meaning behind her writing. As a fellow writer, as a writing student and most of all as a person, I’m glad I did.
Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.