I am really good at embarrassing my daughters.
I mean really good.
Now I know, I know. You are wondering, “How? How did you get to be such a master at turning your lovely daughters’ faces red at the most opportune time?”
Well, let me explain. Here is what I do—what a master does.
I do it by accident.
Eating dinner at a restaurant, I simply engage our waiter in friendly banter. Or, I speak with my girls, in public, at just above the zero decibel level. Or, I just casually walk into Sephora or Lululemon with them. In fact, I have found that, as the father of teenage daughters, it takes very little to make them blush and say, “Dad!”
And I love it.
But when one of my daughters finds herself pretty flustered by her dear old dad, I like to tell her, “Baby, most people are too wrapped up in their own concerns to be focused on what you or I are doing.”
They smile and then roll their eyes.
But is it true? Are people truly so consumed with themselves that they are paying little attention to those around them? In Walden, Henry David Thoreau reflected that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy wrote,
She might have seen that what had bowed her head so profoundly—the thought of the world’s concern at her situation—was founded on illusion. She was not an existence, an experience, a passion, a structure of sensations, to anybody but herself. To all humankind besides, Tess was only a passing thought.
Even Dante Alighieri, arriving in the lowest layer of hell, was surprised that Satan was not vast and menacing in his ministrations of the Inferno. Instead, he took no notice of Dante, Virgil, or even his own surroundings, but was utterly self-absorbed and encased in a lake of ice.
Recently, the notion of self-absorption was vividly brought to my attention when I stumbled across W.H. Auden’s poem Musée des Beaux Arts. Auden’s encounter with Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s oil painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, which inspired the poem, was transformative. It begins,
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along . . .
Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted a cliff’s view of a bay. The verdant cliffside and shore blend with the aquamarine of the sea. While a man absently flicks his dressage whip against his yoked horse’s back, a shepherd stares vacantly at the sky. And as the fisherman lazily casts his line, a ship with billowing sails fights the winds this way and that. All of this takes place, unimportantly, as the body of one of history’s most famous mythical figures, Icarus, plunges headlong in their midst (after “touching the sun” and melting his wings) from the coral-tinted sky to his watery death. Auden’s poem concludes,
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
To those preoccupied with themselves, the death of Icarus is little more than a blurred, pale body plummeting into the ocean. To some, a flash. To others, a burble. A side event. That is all. They have somewhere to get to and sail (or walk) calmly on.
Is this good? Is it good to miss the glories and tragedies around us in the midst of, as Walker Percy might describe, our “everydayness”? While the self-absorption of others may take the pressure off of my daughters’ (father-inspired) self-consciousness, it comes with a risk. Such pre-occupied inwardness risks a tendency to pathologically love ourselves, our vanities, our miseries, our agenda at the expense of loving (or even noticing) our neighbors and our God. To be sure, we are called to be alone, to attend to our own work, and to cultivate an interior life. We are not, however, designed to craft an insular, narcissistic playground. Of course, we should give a damn about our neighbor. But we should not fall prey to the intoxication of sensational tittle-tattle.
We are not called to self-consciousness and judgment. We are not called to self-absorption and vanity. We are, in fact, called to a curious blend that makes up Christian greatness (and eclipses human greatness)—charity and humility, virtue and sanctity. Thomas Merton once observed,
Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one: but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great. For our own idea of greatness is illusory, and if we pay too much attention to it we will be lured out of the peace and stability of the being God gave us, and seek to live in a myth we have created for ourselves. And when we are truly ourselves we lose most of the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are.
The self-conscious, the self-absorbed—every person—carries burdens. Every person has dignity and deserves prayer. As G.K. Chesterton reminds, “We men and women are all in the same boat, upon a stormy sea. We owe to each other a terrible and tragic loyalty.”
I am really good at embarrassing my daughters.
But I’m even better at loving them.