Essays on self respect

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, honour, and the love of a good man preferably a cross between Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and one of the Murchisons in a proxy fight ; lost a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale.

On Self-Respect by Joan Didion

To such doubtful amulets had my self-respect been pinned, and I faced myself that day with the nonplussed wonder of someone who has come across a vampire and found no garlands of garlic 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 charms that work on others count for nothing in that devastatingly well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. 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 post- pone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously un- comfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves. It does not at all. It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation.

Although the careless, suicidal Julian English in Appointment in Samarra and the careless, incurably dishonest Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby seem equally improbable candidates for self-respect, Jordan Baker had it, Julian English did not. They know the price of things.

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If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named corespondent. If they choose to forego their work—say it is screenwriting—in favor of sitting around the Algonquin bar, they do not then wonder bitterly why the Hacketts, and not they, did Anne Frank. In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues.

The measure of its slipping prestige is that one tends to think of it only in connection with homely children and with United States senators who have been defeated, preferably in the primary, for re-election. Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about.

They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts. 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 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. 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.


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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 gift for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. 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: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home. Oct 10, lisa rated it it was amazing.

Jan 29, Ivana de B.


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  • On Self-Respect is a marvelous essay written by Joan Didion. I fell in love with this essay while reading it and I plan to read it many many times again. I felt some of the things Joan Didion mentions in this essay very deeply and it made me question various things I do and thing about. I cannot recommend this wondeful essay enough! 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 12, Arlet rated it it was amazing Shelves: non-fiction. Beautifully written. This woman is not afraid to face veracity. Sep 28, Tanya Tosheva rated it really liked it Shelves: non-fiction. I'm in awe. 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.

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    However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. If we do not respect ourselves, we are 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 notion of us.

    Jan 01, Joann rated it really liked it.

    Essay on Self Respect

    Her writing is terrific. You can see her style in most journalists today. Jul 29, Janet rated it it was amazing. Every time I read this essay I find more value in Didion's words.

    The Importance of Self-Respect Essay

    Several passages I read and reread because I know there is rare insight there but to grasp the meaning or author's intent requires careful analysis. Other passages open up immediately and I want to shout, "Yes Apr 10, Dan rated it really liked it. Sowmya rated it it was amazing Apr 12, Charlotte Easson rated it it was amazing Dec 18, Kristin L Fisher rated it it was amazing Dec 28, Stephanie Janetos rated it it was amazing Apr 07, It makes me sad to see them without respect for themselves and just in a state of misery.

    Those with low self esteem hurt themselves which could lead to hurting others. Having high self esteem can have an impact to my self righteousness, self perseverance and future. Life is so much with high self esteem because I can be whatever I want and I can believe in the things I want to do. I want to become a doctor and find the cure for something, aids, cancer or any other disease. Ever since I was five years old I have always wanted to be a doctor so I contribute my life to helping others. Believing in myself and respecting myself now can help me become the doctor I have always wanted to be.

    Having that kind of mentality and self esteem can give me that push I need to accomplish my dream.