Skip Nav

On Self Respect by Joan Didion Summary

Get our Newsletter

❶People do hurt each other. However long we post- pone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously un- comfortable bed, the one we make ourselves.

See a Problem?

This, she concludes, isn't a healthy means of coping, as memory can be a fickle friend. In Blue Nights , she writes:. In fact I no longer value this kind of memento. I no longer want reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted. There was a period, a long period, dating from my childhood until quite recently, when I thought I did. A period during which I believed that I could keep people fully present, keep them with me, by preserving their mementos, their "things," their totems.

She begins by saying that writing is a way to assert her opinions, and even goes so far as to call it an "aggressive, even a hostile act. Didion has also famously said that she never understands how she feels about something until she's written about it. In that sense, it's a form of meditation, or self-discovery.

When life presents her with a question, she writes to find the answer. What I want and what I fear. Read "Why I Write" here. In The Year of Magical Thinking , Didion doesn't only explore the healthy or destructive ways she attempts to cope with grief. She also draws poignant conclusions about the ways in which we make sense of seemingly random events.

For her, telling stories, or creating a sensical narrative from the disparate happenings in her life, is the most natural way to create meaning, and thereby have peace of mind. We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. It seemed to the nineteenth century admirable, but not remarkable, that Chinese Gordon put on a clean white suit and held Khartoum against the Mahdi; it did not seem unjust that the way to free land in California involved death and difficulty and dirt.

In a diary kept during the winter of , an emigrating twelve-year-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: In one guise or another, Indians always are. Again, it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.

That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth. It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: There is a similar case for all the small disciplines, unimportant in themselves; imagine maintaining any kind of swoon, commiserative or carnal, in a cold shower.

But those small disciplines are valuable only insofar as they represent larger ones. To say that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton is not to say that Napoleon might have been saved by a crash program in cricket; to give formal dinners in the rain forest would be pointless did not the candlelight flickering on the liana call forth deeper, stronger disciplines, values instilled long before. It is a kind of ritual, helping us to remember who and what we are. In order to remember it, one must have known it.

To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weak- nesses.

On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out—since our self-image is untenable—their false notions of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: It is the phenomenon sometimes called alienation from self. In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect.

Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: May 21, Narin rated it it was amazing. Yes, it's an essay, not a book. No, I don't care. This is Joan Didion: Her writing is so precious to me, I almost hesitate to share it. But now I have. So go read On Self-Respect yourself. In fact, go read anything she's written.

You won't regret it. Oct 10, lisa rated it it was amazing. May 08, Michelle marked it as to-read. I must find this book and read it, then give it to my daughter. Didion is a brilliant, accessible writer that should be read by all young girls. Oct 31, Sal rated it it was amazing. Sep 28, Tanya Tosheva rated it really liked it Shelves: Every sentence is just right, every word is in its place, every thought so clear it might have been my own.

To such doubtful amulets had my self-respect been pinned, and I faced myself that day with the nonplussed apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire and has no crucifix at hand. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, the Phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commissions and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice, or carelessness.

However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a mater of misplaced self-respect. I had not been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. This failure could scarcely have been more predictable or less ambiguous I simply did not have the grades , but I was unnerved by it; I had somehow thought myself a kind of academic Raskolnikov, curiously exempt from the cause-effect relationships which hampered others.

Although even the humorless nineteen-year-old that I was must have recognized that the situation lacked real tragic stature, the day that I did to make Phi Beta kappa nonetheless marked the end of something, and innocence may well be the word for it. I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honor, and the love of a good man; lost a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proved competence on the Stanford-Binet scale.

To such doubtful amulets had my self-respect been pinned, and I faced myself that day with the nonplussed apprehension of someone who has come across a vampire and has no crucifix at hand. Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception.

The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself; no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. Wow, what a great essay! When talking about guys, one of my friends used to say: Thank you for writing about this essay, which Thomas Larson in The Memoir and the Memoirist says is the greatest American essay.

I know what you mean, Rochelle. Saying that last line is powerful might be an understatement …. Do you happen to know when it was written? Didion has such a poignant perspective on so many things. I am so grateful for her! Thanks for putting this up, I think it is about time I purchase or borrow Slouching Toward Bethlehem. The last paragraph echoes a profound truth. We humans play an awful game or trick of forgetfulness on ourselves.

Intuitively self-respect is something we all know, but simply choose to ignore it. In order not to be responsible for ones self! Here is a simple path; it has worked for me over the decades…: For instance, mine is: And also, I will not go to extremes, or force myself.

I will not follow impulses or react. Then, say what you mean, and mean what you say. Even with really terrible mistakes that cause great agony, you still have the buffer, something, because you were, actually, doing the best that you could at the time, and you know it.

Once you get into the habit of doing the best that you can on a moment to moment basis, it becomes second nature…. A person with self-respect, she seems to be saying, feels no guilt whatsoever if you choose to betray your spouse, do so unapologetically! It seems to me an overcompensation: Remembering how we have hurt or failed others only cripples us, so give no thought to anyone but ourselves.

But that cannot be right, for it means that only a sociopath — someone without a shred of conscience or empathy for how the consequences of his actions affect others — can truly have self-respect. So, as I said, I must have misinterpreted it.

For if that is the true measure of self-respect, then to possess it is to become a monster. I think shes trying to say: If you betray your spouse and lie about it to others…it doesnt matter if they believe you or not, its about how you feel yourself. Can you really cheat on your wife and not feel guilty? Because she is suggesting quite a different code of ethics based more closely about the way people actually behave.

People do betray their spouses. People do hurt each other. Does mulling over these things prevent it happening again? Not necessarily, although that might be nice.

Main Topics

Privacy Policy

Joan Didion’s seminal Vogue essay on self-respect.

Privacy FAQs

Not long ago I was at Border’s, looking through the store’s Joan Didion selection. She’s one of my favorite authors, so I naturally gravitate toward her books. As I opened Didion’s “Slouching Toward Bethlehem,” I re-read her “On Self Respect” essay. To read a beautifully-written essay about what self respect means is for me a.

About Our Ads

On Self-Respect An essay on understanding our character, worth, and limits. Joan Didion Vogue Jun Permalink. On Joan Didion’s 80th birthday, I thought that sharing her seminal Vogue essay on self-respect would be appropriate. Beautifully written and incredibly astute, it most definitely stands the test of time.

Cookie Info

Within the essay by Joan Didion “On Self-Respect” Didion argues that the importance of respecting oneself while not the cure to all of the fallacies, and ignominies that come with being human, does however, alleviate some of those tendencies to focus on those blunders, focusing on qualities that one excels at. An index of Joan Didion's essays available free online. An index of Joan Didion's essays available free online. About Books Essays Quotes Joan Didion. About Books Essays Self-respect: its source, its power. Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of .