The Irrelevant Self

by John Estes

        What does it mean, to balance, insofar as an individual is able, the competing demands of the private life of the soul and the public one of the social order? To what extent is it true, that we each carry a share of pain, that we cry out for what we lack, that healing is achieved, if achieved at all, by fraction? We would hardly split each other open to know, but sometimes that’s just what Jack wanted to do; he wanted to know people, he ached for intimacy, and could barely restrain himself around people, sometimes strangers, sometimes friends, when he just wanted to burst with a desire, or a need to touch them—but to even hug in most social situations is verboten, and he would, as custom designed, offer a hand, or only a light tug on the shoulders, when what he wanted was to really hold people, to tell them that he cared about them, or that he wanted them, wanted to put them in his mouth. As he called it, he overbrimmed with eros, and it was about all he could do to comport himself, to play the part of the boundaried individual, whose private needs were modestly contained or non-existent. We would never talk about them, we would never dare confess to one another our most intimate, secret thoughts.
        And maybe his assumptions were wrong; maybe he was not a representative man, maybe his voracious (what other word would do?) want for connection that went beyond common courtesy was in fact not the hidden truth of humanity, but an aberration. Perhaps people were satisfied; perhaps the cliché of lives lived in quiet desperation was just that. Maybe he just secretly wanted to master and possess people; perhaps it was, simply speaking, a will to power. What feels like love and expressions of love, may in fact just be prurient curiosity, lusts of various stripes, the worst kind of decadent self-expression. He admired people who were contained, who knew always just the right thing to do, whose wants and appetites were not on display (who maybe were entirely sufficient with what they had and needed no more), who dressed modestly and spoke slowly.

Red Carpet by Jeremy Freedman
Red Carpet by Jeremy Freedman

        He imagined everyone naked, and wished he could stop; perhaps he should have been a nudist. When a child, he had no trouble believing in Adam and Eve simply because he loved so much being unclothed, and even now felt no shame, and no real sense of privacy, about his body, imperfect as it was. But it was out of an abundance of love and respect and a fear of the consequences, an acknowledgment of human frailty, that he kept his mouth shut, that he would sometimes writhe in loneliness in bed each night, that he did not bother people, he did not act on any of the impulses he felt, even to put his hand on a friend’s arm, or to be a polite kisser, as if he were French or Arab, although that would have been his preferred form of greeting and departing. It’s like the typewriter mode in a word processor, where it keeps, always, the line you’re working on in the middle of the screen—he kept his bearings right down the middle, aimed for the sweet spot between socially acceptable and personally satisfying (as if he were Swedish, who live this way), which really just meant he survived, he managed, the pain of his separation from others was something he could keep under wraps or medicate with alcohol, pharmaceuticals, exercise.
        To be no-drama meant to behave exactly the way everyone expected, to draw no attention to yourself, to seek nothing unseemly or untoward, to exercise no vanity, no excessive ambition or to act outside the prescribed lines of your delegated authority. He knew it to be true: power like attention was a finite resource that existed as pools of available energy. It needed to be administrated, and some portion of it came to each of us, never in equal quantities, not always in proportion to our worthiness. What can you go without? Like any resource, common sense tells you that power accrues to those who knew how to gather and conserve it. Thus spiritual power belongs to the ascetical or gifted, wealth to the scheming or miserly, political might to the wise or usurping. These things he understood, and did not wish to waste his life in the profligate expenditure of his limited strength. So he suffered, he took that suffering within his body and he bore it, the way we all learn that to be a social animal is to be an actor; he played his role and respected the roles of others even though he know it all to be a sham of some kind, a ceremony without a reward.