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Those Who Battle the Demon Within
This was originally the beginning of a public letter exchange with the philosopher of science Liam Kofi Bright. Liam is one of the most intelligent people I have ever encountered and one of the most widely loved, yet he suffers from periods of severe depression and self-loathing. (He has spoken about this publicly.) Liam is a striking example of something I’ve encountered often and so I decided to share these thoughts with you, my Substack readers, too. (And do check out Liam’s work, which is fascinating and very clear and readable, even to a layperson like me.
It’s something that has both baffled and troubled me for a long time: why do so many of the people I most like and admire seem to dislike or hate themselves? I have several very dear friends who do this, so, although I don't know you well, Liam, and we have only had the chance to meet in real life on one occasion (next time, the first round is on me), your use of this trope struck a chord.
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You tweet about your own worthlessness a lot, mostly in the form of a kind of gallows humour that carefully and delicately dances around the question of how earnestly your words are meant. You once explained that you do this because it allows you to express something you genuinely feel, which you would otherwise have to censor. Self-deprecating humour can be a useful tool. Since people with high self-esteem may also use it, in a genuinely jokey way, it has the advantage of plausible deniability. It allows you to both reveal and conceal what you feel, making it difficult to know how seriously to take you. (I use perpetual flirting in this way, to conceal my propensity to painful, inappropriate crushes, on the assumption that the safest place to hide a body is in a graveyard.)
This jokey self-deprecation shields you from pity and from annoying people—like me!—telling you to stop being down on yourself. That kind of humour makes me uncomfortable, but I would not want you to feel unable to express what you sincerely think and it provides a handy tool for that. It allows you to state what you dislike about yourself, without seeming as if you are fishing for compliments or trying to elicit reassurance. (Although there would be nothing wrong with fishing for compliments or seeking reassurance because being able to give genuine compliments and reassurance to people who need and deserve it is an honour. As George Eliot puts it, “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?”)
I'm not an advocate of high self-esteem. I am convinced by the arguments in Roy Baumeister’s book Evil, by Jon Ronson in The Psychopath Test and by what the wonderful Will Storr writes in Selfie and I’ve talked to Will about this elsewhere at some length: narcissism is a much greater problem than self-loathing and narcissists are much more likely to become megalomaniacs, violent abusers, dictators and authoritarians (though, of course, some people's narcissism seems like a thin veneer of bluster over a deep well of self-hatred—I'm no psychologist and therefore not bound by the Goldwater rule, so I confess that this is how Donald Trump always seems to me). Although I don't know you well, I can tell even from our slight acquaintance that you have deep reserves of kindness and empathy. Personalities are a delicate balance and, perhaps if you liked yourself more, you would be a different person, less compassionate and—ironically—less worthy of love.
It's a cliché to tell people who are their own harshest critics to imagine what you would say to a friend who was going through what you are going through. But, like many clichés, there is truth to it. It's a tribute to human nature that so many of us are kinder to other people than we are to ourselves.
Very few things inspire self-loathing more than a perusal of one's own past bad poetry, but, ironically, a sonnet I wrote on the topic is one of the few poems of mine I genuinely and wholeheartedly like. Perhaps it will serve to bring the cliché to more vibrant life.
The central metaphor in the poem is inspired by the phenomenon that occurs when the reflections between two panes of glass line up, such that one person's reflection (known evocatively as a reflection ghost) is superimposed on the other's. It's used to great effect in TV and cinema, such as in the prison scene in Almodóvar's Hable con Ella and in SE1E6 of Star Trek: Picard, when Picard is looking at an image of himself as Locutus of Borg in a monitor and the screen reflects his own face onto the image, so he is seeing himself as he currently is and as his past Borg incarnation at once.
This phenomenon can also occur when, for example, two trains stop directly across from each other and the train windows line up or when talking to someone through a double pane of glass (in a prison cell or isolation ward). This is an apt image to elicit within the framework of a correspondence, I think. Anyway, here is my sonnet. May it bring you amusement or comfort:
“I hate myself,” I lie, but then, my dear,
Echo to your Narcissus, I repeat
The same self-accusations, faults and fears
Shared failings which, in you, I find so sweet.
My features merge with your reflection ghost—
Strange superimposition of your face
On mine—and all those things I hate the most
In me are there in you and in that place
I love them—they are what I like the best
About you: my own demons housed within
My counterpart, my chiral palimpsest
Transformed, tamed and redeemed inside my twin.
We are two dim reflections into one compacted.
But is it you I love—or just myself refracted?
Liam’s letter in response is no longer public, but you can listen to him talking very eloquently about this in an interview with me here (from 1:22:35).
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