Self-absorption is a disease of temperament that assumes that what is personal to you will automatically be found personal and interesting for everyone else. It is the disease of an idle mind in search of entertainment, someone who has become the slave of the desire to be noticed at all costs. Such people appear to be giving to you, but actually their purpose is to take. They affect to have an interest in you, but at bottom, they are like second graders who cry, “ME ME, ME” at the top of their voices. This makes a mockery of any attempt at friendship with them.
It is a colossal mental error, a huge misjudgment, to think that the petty details of your life are going to be found interesting by others who have no knowledge of them. Such a person is clearly not able to do justice to others unless they fall into with their own views and preoccupations. In such people, their bloated egoism demands that strangers like us must hear their dreary recital of the petty and trivial stories in the hope of gaining our recognition and applause. We are commanded to be attentive to their anecdotes, yet the listener of them can’t picture the conduct of their subjects or characters nor are we able to conjure up the voices in their stories.
By now you are wondering what in the world is Richard ranting on about? I’ll explain.
We wife and I had first encountered a young daughter of a neighbor when we moved to Durham, North Carolina, seven years ago. We lived across the street from her family, and at night, a young girl and her girl friend would come over and ring our front door bell at 10:00 at night, and wait for the reaction. Sometimes the bell rang at midnight. We didn’t pay the much attention. They were young, impish kids after all.
We saw her grow up. We saw her body gain in grace, and her mind grew perceptive, curious and sharp. It was clear that she had a force of personality. She was direct, fearless, and had charm. We also soon learned that she was also shrewd and manipulative and a shade ruthless. One night, when she was a junior, she secretly hosted a house party for her friends where beer and wind and liquor was served and enjoyed while she pretended she was somewhere else. (Her mother had left her alone. )In other words, the girl, (we’ll call her Carol,) could be subtle and sly -- which are unnerving qualities if you are a parent.
Her parents divorced three years ago, and there was a mood of lingering bitterness among the parents and their children. I had become a friend of the father when, after I had suffered a stroke, when he built from scratch a ramp that allowed my wheel car to take me at the door of my house. I feel deeply grateful for it to this day.
When the parents divorced, my wife and I stood by both of them and gave what support we could to each of them. We were impartial. We kept our judgments in check. Carol, the daughter had two brothers who were also close to us. One took sides, the other was neutral. After the divorce, the mother became even more close friends with my wife and me, but we stayed in close touch with the father.. Over time, we found that some of the children got along with their dad, but Carol, the daughter, found it impossible. Yet as the initial bitterness ebbed away, last spring, her father, became the coach of her lacrosse team, leading them to their first victories in seven years. The two had become close.
In the meantime, we watched the daughter grow to be a lovely, attractive young woman. She had a will with hard metal in it. She was a tremendously hard worker. She was a lifeguard, a baby sitter, and when she got her driver’s license, she began a driving service to conveyed teenagers home after a party plus she ran errands. She was curious. She grasped what she sees, but, better yet, she feels what she sees. She liked it when I talked about foreign policy, and once she startled me by asking if she would like joining the CIA. I told her what it might require, a mastery of languages, a quick reading of people, a wide and deep knowledge of foreign cultures, mental agility, and so on. She seemed to take it all in.
The friendship between the families deepened. A genuine friendship take place when similar natures and drawn together as if by a magnet. That is what happened here. Just as two thugs recognize each other as if they were wearing a badge, the same thing happens with people who have good hearts. They are moved by a sympathy that cares deeply about what the other is undergoing. We felt that, and so did they.
All the while, Carol, grew and thrived. Carol grew into a person who was sincere, honest, trustworthy and virtuous. Once she got her driver’s license Carol used to drop in and see us, and our affection between us deepened rapidly. Finally, the mother and the father bestowed on us the honor of adopting us into their family. The parents of both had died at a very young age, and we were now the grandparents of their children. We were thrilled at their generosity. I had learned to love Carol as much as I did my own daughter.
Finally, the day came when she was to graduate from high school, a ceremony to congratulate her and her classmates for their ambition, their efforts and achievements. Her father generously offered to pick up my wife and me and drove us to the auditorium, Unfortunately, the father’s sister, Carol’s aunt, came as well.
Carol belonged to a big class of about 350 students. When we arrived, the vast amphitheatre was almost empty. We wanted time to savor the memories associated with Carol and her parents. But no sooner had we settled, when the aunt, a seated in a row front of us, turned and starting talking non-stop to my wife and me. She had no interest in the coming event at all. She paid not the least attention to the people beginning to fill the auditorium. Instead, she unearthed from her purse a smart phone. Immediately, she slapped it open, and leaned backward from her row, clearly determined to show us all her treasures.
First of all, with the overhead lights, you could not really see anything clearly. But you didn’t have to. Instead, you are greeted with a photo of a distant relative who had a head and face, but neither my wife or I were given the story behind the photo, and the information monsoon going on, a trite sleeting of commonplaces, made it impossible \to realize who the people were. There were pictures of young kids, young people, old people, but my wife and I didn’t know any of them. It dawned on me that when you come across a person who simply wants to use you to listen to every trivial perception of theirs, you should flee them the way animals flee a forest fire. This person simply wanted us to be her sounding board. There was no sense of proportion or fitness, or appropriateness. There was no priority. no sense of hierarchy and no discernible order.
This loquacious stump of a woman exhibited no imagination, no sense of putting herself in her listener’s place; no consideration for her captives. Such a person doesn’t really care about the listener’s reaction. Self satisfied, they simply blather on and on and on and on, in order to empty their minds of every passing and vagrant thought. Even a tiny clue would set off a maelstrom of jabber: apparently, she has a relative named Jeff, but the great grandfather had a son named Jeff, and one aunt had named her daughter Jeff even though it was a male name, and one of her distant aunt’s cousins married a man named Jeff, a high school kid, who was killed in an auto accident.
At that point you start to wonder if we could perhaps engineer a little mishap for the speaker.
All the while, of course, as the huge stands began to fill, and the din grew deafening, and the band began to play uplifting and noble music like Henry Purcell. In reaction to the music, this, loud, fat woman simply got louder. “I got my husband because my father had a heart attack. I needed a car, and this guy at the filling station would take me to seem father a lot, and we had a few lunches and got married.”
There is nothing touching, nothing significant about this. There is no admiring description of the husband, there is no retailing of their affection and care for each other, there is no depiction of the gentle and delicate moments between them. Why, then, tell everyone within range, about this? What we wanted to know, was her reaction to her husband, or his reaction of her. Those questions would have acted to enliven the narrative, raise questions, and spur debate and conversation. But the blunt, shouted facts barred us from asking. We know nothing beyond the fact that she found a use for the filling station owner and married him.
She is, you see, entirely self centered, a person addicted to self-worship.
A mood builds at graduation, and by this point, the stands were three quarters full, and the infectious excitement, the sense of expectation, was building constantly, but the loud woman took no notice. My wife and I wanted our thoughts to be centered on Carol and her classmates, on our memories of her growing up, but we were stopped cold. The photos kept slapped down remorsessly. Who in the world wants to see what some stranger’s living room looks like at Christmas?
By now, the joy and pride of parents were mounting to a climax. Our hearts pounded. The music built the mood to a higher pitch, yet the seated fat lady, the self absorbed moron, didn’t feel it, didn’t observe it, and took no pleasure in it. She’s too busy showing ff photos of people that my wife and I had never met and which we weren’t interest in hearing about. Of course, by now, I was in a rage. I resented this trivial chit chat was being poured over my mind like used water from a bucket.
Then the climax came.
The minute the would-be graduates entered, there was a thrilling, earsplitting joyous roar, full of pride, love, approbation and endorsing support, and the loud aunt finally ceased. She turned to face the stage and began to take more photos. Meanwhile, Carol suddenly came in, carrying herself with grace and resolution, resplendent in her robes and cap, her face alight with joy, and Sharon, her mother, expressed overwhelming happiness and pride. and then later, at the after party, Carol expressed so much vivid love to my wife and I that we were borne aloft again, my soul so grateful that such a young, astute woman had come to love us both. That made that day truly glorious. And that is what I will remember and cherish.
A Final Note
I know some will think me too critical in writing this, but criticizing others can provide a pathway to the further reformation of yourself. When we criticize others for what they did or what they left undone, we should have a sufficient sense of justice or pride or even vanity, to want to avoid in your own case what offended you in them. Some people’s only value consists of prodding other people to vow not to be like them. Sometimes a person’s only value is to provide an example of what not to be.
One thing more. I believe that this epidemic of photo-taking is merely a way to dodge the effort of taking thought. Photo takers use photos as a kind of cue card, a way to create a desire to savor an experience by returning to it, but most don’t. It is a false premise. I have worked with great photographers, Allred Eisenstaedt at LIFE Magazine, whose most famous photo, taken during V- Day, showed "an exuberant American sailor kissing a nurse in a dancelike dip [that] summed up the euphoria many Americans felt as the war came to a close” (Wikipedia)
I also worked with Howard Bingham, Mohammad Ali’s personal photographer who watched my back at the Chicago convention of 1968. and worked with Howard to record civil rights struggle in south LA in the 70s. But their photos had a purpose; they were part of an effort to truthfully record an event. They chose, the omitted, the edited. The put petty efforts behind.
In any case, my wife and I wish Carol, our new granddaughter, the best of success.