Self respect is an act of defiance.
It’s not supposed to be. It’s popularly portrayed as an internal glow, this happy warm energy that irradiates everything around you with the recognition that yes, you are a living creature, give you space to exist.
But few people get space for free. The world can be a claustrophobic place. The walls of other peoples’ needs, desires, expectations, and fears can press in too tightly, over and over again. They don’t cease and desist just because there’s a living, breathing person caught in the way.
Under these circumstances, there are some people who know how to find the cracks in those walls. They are able to find the small forgotten spaces, beyond the press of others’ existence. They are able to climb on the roof to enjoy a sunset smoke, as it were, kicking their heels against the shingles while gazing down at their in-laws’ perfectly waxed car and their neighbor’s passive aggressive hedge trimming activities. They do it proudly, in full view of the neighborhood, and they do it with the full knowledge that they will be a repeat offender.
Like most acts of defiance, you can’t really do self respect “just once.” It’s a gateway to all sorts of subversive activities. You may start saying “no” more often, and “yes” when you really mean it. You may spend more time pursuing activities that make you aware of your soul. You may become less susceptible to manipulation and browbeating and your own complicity in sterilizing your existence.
Luckily, you don’t need to procure suspicious materials in order to make your very own homemade self respect. You don’t need large quantities of tylenol or lime, you don’t need a spare bathtub to hold a batch. You don’t need to watch Breaking Bad like it’s Martha Stewart, although if you do that’s your business.
I won’t include exact amounts. This isn’t The Anarchist’s Cookbook, and besides – trial and error is a traditional part of the process. Your exact needs may vary. However, here is a basic ingredients list for your very own starter batch of self respect.
Know your values. This is a lot less highbrow than it sounds. Simply know what you can’t face yourself after – the things that trigger your urge to hide from yourself. Watch for that little internal cringe and twitch of the curtains between you and the world.
Be aware. Know what it feels like something or someone has dented or violated one of these values. Whether it’s the world pressing in or your own soft spots, know your pressure points and the ways they give in.
Practice honesty. When one of your values hasn’t performed well under pressure, you may try to hide the feeling from yourself with any number of activities or excuses. These are distractions. Your life is too important to give away to distraction when you could face the truth and grow. If you aren’t honest, you’ll never know when it’s time to give yourself some compassion.
Be contrary. A touch of contrarianism is the crucial touch – that secret ingredient that makes the above Sunday school class of virtues sit up and take notes. It’s salt, it’s Tabasco, it’s fish sauce and fireworks. You can’t craft enduring self respect without a certain subversive tendency to question what you’re told and repurpose what you’re given.
Of course, there’s one last part of the process. You have to be willing to ask yourself: “Why am I worth self respect?” Until you find that answer, you won’t be willing to defend your space once you’ve made it.
You’ll have to ponder that question on your own. I can just about manage my own efforts at crafting self respect, what with the most recent explosions and resulting cleanup and singed eyebrows, etc. etc. But my current answer to that question looks something like this.
My existence holds a piece of the universe, a piece that wouldn’t otherwise exist. That piece isn’t going to see expression any other way.
Like most homegrown attempts at “profound” “truth”, there’s a catch: I don’t know what that piece is. I’m playing this game blind, without any indication of my own value, though sometimes I catch a glimpse of others’ value. It’s like cheating at poker, except my own hand’s cards are printed in invisible ink.
Because I don’t know my own value, and I don’t know what part of me may be unique, I don’t get to quit defending the integrity of the whole. Or rather, I can – everyone has that choice, multiple times a day. So at a certain point, because I can’t see my own value but can sometimes see others’ value – I have to conclude that defending my self respect is necessary because it enables me to see others clearly from a distance of my own making.
This translates to: life needs me. The pieces I can’t see, need me. Even the people who crowd and hem me in – need me. They just don’t understand enough to see it. They need my resistance to their demands, and they need me as a separate, unique part of a system they can’t see. So when I say self respect is an act of defiance – I guess I mean altruism. Self respect is an act of altruism…towards yourself and others.
I don’t know, I still think defiance sounds like a lot more fun. We’ll stick with that for now. And if you have any good recipes for your own version of self respect… by all means please share in the comments. I’ve got plenty of time while I wait for the next batch to finish cooking.