I suppose it was only a matter of time before I found myself infatuated with the likes of Joan Didion (whose chain-smoking charms I put off for so long). She’s at last become inevitable. Along with her recent Netflix documentary and her brief epigraph in Lady Bird, her recently resurfaced essay “On Self-Respect” was nothing short of a pleasant surprise (ht JR). Originally commissioned as a last minute addition to a 1961 issue of Vogue, its parameters (legend goes) were not an exact word count but an exact character count. As you’ll see, the lasting emotional heft of this short essay has endowed it as so much more than a mere space-filler.

Didion identifies a precondition for a functional life, a thing she calls self-respect—something I’ll take the liberty of interpreting as the experience of feeling justified, of feeling fearlessly at ease in one’s own skin. It’s something that I wish I came by naturally. If I’m honest, though, I recognize myself more, not in Didion’s descriptions of the person exhibiting self-respect, but in the person lacking it. And it seems that, being so well-versed with this particular condition, nor was she herself exempt (chic black-and-white photos notwithstanding):

…self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The tricks that work on others count for nothing in that very well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. One shuffles flashily but in vain through one’s marked cards—the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed. The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others—who are, after all, deceived easily enough…

To do without self-respect…is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable documentary that details one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for every screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there’s the hurt on X’s face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission 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. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves…

To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. 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 weaknesses. 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: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course I will play Francesca to your Paolo, Helen Keller to anyone’s Anne Sullivan: no expectation is too misplaced, no role too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.

It is the phenomenon sometimes called “alienation of the 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. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the specter of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that answering it becomes out of the question. 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, singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.

As someone who currently has an unanswered letter on his desk, and the eternal blue dot of an unopened text message inhabiting his phone, I find Didion’s diagnosis incredibly perceptive (not just artfully composed). I’m painfully aware of the disproportionate gravity to which I assign an incoming phone call, and the fear of what someone might think of me should they catch me on the other end, unprepared to give my best. To be freed from the expectations of others, to give myself back to myself (as Didion puts it), well, it’s a posture I find hopelessly attractive. And yet the closest I’ve ever gotten to it was given by my religion, in the promise (and subsequent feeling) of being justified. When I know I am loved—in those moments when it really hits me in such a way that I have no other option but to believe it—I do find myself lighter, freer, acting, to my great surprise, out of what she calls self-respect. As though I really believed I was fearfully and wonderfully made, being carried in the palm lines of a loving God, who cares to know even the number of hairs on my head.

So how does one go from self-pitying to self-respecting, according to Joan Didion? Well, she says, by remembering what you know about yourself. And not without help. Developing self-respect—again, what I see as the experience of of justification—requires something besides a certain level of grit. What it requires, for Joan Didion, is some funny, distracting thing: some other thing to curb the course of her self-loathing.

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: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag. 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.

It’s that external agent that awakens Didion from her self-pitying dramatizations; likewise, it is God who brings me back to reality. His is the being who absurdifies my life, his is the love that gives me levity, his is the presence that doesn’t relent. It’s true, as Didion says, that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of other people, who, let’s face it, “can be deceived easily enough.” Not so with God. Never have I tricked him with my self-aggrandizing antics, and never has he missed a single line from my many manic inner-monologues. And still, he is there, calling me his own.

This realization comes, as Didion says, like a shock of cold water when I thought it should be warm; it comes unexpectedly, in humor, in surprise, even in pain…in whatever it may be that wipes the dust off my glasses so that I can once again see “the proper weight” of daily demands—and of my ultimate justification apart from those demands. It is this thing that reminds me that my worth comes from the cross, and not from the number of hours I’ve worked, and not from the number of people I have fooled today into thinking I am somehow likable; it is this thing that begins to sow the seeds of love and self-respect in me, which Joan Didion might call a Food Fair bag, and which we might call grace.