Self-Absorption and Seeing Deeply II
Bill Long 11/27/05
The "Link" to Others
The link between self-absorption and being able to see deeply into others is that self-absorption gives you a series of questions that others don't ask persistently about themselves and which, when answered, provide information of almost revelatory depth about another. Self-absorption gives you an angle on yourself and the world that isn't satisfied with defining the self by the categories or questions of the present. An example might illustrate what I mean.
Certain psychological paradigms stalk our current popular culture like bad dreams. One of the most noxious is the notion that counseling people who have suffered great distress can help bring about "closure" after the distress. I don't particularly know where the concept of "closure" came from in the psychological literature (can anyone help?), but it tended to dominate the way people looked at things in the 1990s and still tends to characterize conversations that I frequently overhear. That is, the "model" of distress seems to work something like this. (1) You live your life, with the normal ups and downs; (2) Something really bad happens; (3) You are shattered; (4) You stay with this feeling of being shattered for quite some time but you really need an event, a person, a breakthrough, a something to bring "closure" to the past so that you can "move on" in the present. A variation on this theory is that you will "move on" in a scarred fashion, but that the scars in your personality or on your body actually make you a deeper person. And so this explanatory paradigm makes its nice way into our culture and into our lives.
The SAP's "Take" on This
But the SAP knows instinctively that none of this is true or, if it has some inklings of truth, it is much more complex than this. The SAP knows that each step along the way has an incredible richness to it. The SAP might want to talk to a person who has suffered a major setback but instead of getting to the loss or the "big event" that happened to change life, might be satisfied simply with describing (1) above. The SAP doesn't simply accept the culture's determination or even the individual's conclusion that (2) really changed life; maybe things are more complex than that. Maybe, indeed, the big event in (2) is only kind of a sign, a warning, a symbol pointing to something else which is the real key to one's self-understanding.
But, as with Capote, the SAP becomes truly useful to others when this kind of self-obsession is complemented by "94 percent recall." Little bread crumbs dropped along the way become the keys through which the SAP can effectively question and "see into" another today. One of the things I was most proud about my short-lived (three year) career as a civil litigator is that my performance reviews recognized that I often gathered and presented obscure data from arcane sources. The review said it matter of factly; I thought it should have been in lights.
But a word of caution is appropriate at this juncture. The SAP will often be so much in his own world that the questions that motivate him at any time might not have any resonance with anyone else in the room. Remarkably intrusive personal questions often motivate a SAP. A SAP can look at another person, listen to them, and immediatly realize some of the struggles the person has faced in coming to the place of this conversation. Frequently the SAP then wants to probe the person not at the level of the words in the conversation but at the heart-level which he perceives is behind the other's speech. And, not everyone wants to be probed on that level. Thus, the SAP is misunderstood and often rejected or ignored.
This "new paradigm" of the SAP might help us understand and re-evaluate certain great people in history.
Waking Up Tomorrow
But the SAP is not only keeps the past alive by asking thousands of questions about the self, not only brings this level of analysis to others, but wakes up the next day wanting to do more of the same. That is, the SAP stays that way. Often we pass through stages of life, stages in which we manifest certain undesirable social traits that we will, with time, "grow out of." Mindless needling of one's siblings is one that comes quickly to mind. But a SAP doesn't grow out of it. It just morphs into thousands of new questions each day of life.
In this regard, I have to confess that I believe that self-absorption is a gift from the gods. For years I, who have suffered from this affliction, thought that I was morally inferior because I just couldn't muster either the feelings of compassion or the needed actions that would demonstrate to others that I was a "loving" Christian person. Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount about humble-mindedness and meekness just whistled past me like an Amtrack train whisking through Western Kansas. It was not until I began to see being a SAP as a "given," a rather strange and even troubling providence, in the words of 17th century Puritanism, that I truly began to like myself. I began to see that this absorption didn't have to come at the expense of understanding others or in developing friendships. It could, indeed, lay special burdens on others at various times, and I still hesitate to trouble others with these burdens. But once the true contours of one's self-absorption become evident to the self, you are freed to bring your gifts to the world.
And yes, there is one other little thing. In the process of looking deeply into another, which the SAP is often remarkably able to do, he, like Capote, engages in "self-mythologizing," as one reviewer calls it. That is, since the SAP is always trying to understand the past, he is always recreating the self, always justifying the self, always "making it up as he goes along." Firm or bedrock conclusions are subject to constant scrutiny and the SAP tells himself stories that can only be characterized as untruths. Capote knew this well. But maybe he also knew that all humans engage in a process of self-mythologization, all humans reconstruct the past. The SAP is just a little more forthright in his process.
So, David Edelstein, thank you for giving me the gift of the little word "nonetheless" today. It helped me crystallize my thoughts. I doubt if it makes anyone else long to be a SAP, but it can help make the days easier for those of us who are.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long