Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Self-Actualization through Self-Deprecation

Eat, pray, love. At first glance, these three single-syllable verbs appear simple and accessible. Eat Pray Love proves that linguistic brevity is, in this case, ironic, since these particular compact words can be such enormously daunting tasks.  Even something as natural and enjoyable as eating can be challenging in the right context, like when a person undergoes an emotionally draining existential crisis (as evidenced by Liz’s unhealthy slimdown during her long-suffering divorce proceedings). But the tremendous effort required by these three neat little verbs gives them tremendous potential as subjects for humor, particularly the self-deprecating variety that permeates Eat Pray Love.  We witness with delight as Gilbert serially revisits a shop in Italy for the next size up in pants, gets distracted by trivial arguments with herself during meditation, and admits to having had more confidence about sex and romance at age sixteen than she has eighteen years later.

Successful self-deprecation—the ability to genuinely invite laughter at our own expense—demands the level of self-awareness and self-acceptance that Gilbert crosses continents to reach.  Her particular brand of self-deprecation strays from the Sedaris model of revealing quirky behavioral patterns and bizarre thoughts, fostering reader accessibility by allowing the reader to mainly laugh at the weirdness rather than personally identify with it. (It seems to me that both David and Amy do this.)  Gilbert’s model is less quirky and more universally human—particularly when it comes to the romantic attachment issues and all the self-doubt and insecurity that come with it.  Like the Sedaris siblings, Gilbert is candid, holding nothing back as she details her tortured conversations with herself that take shape anywhere from the most sacred meditation caves of the Ashram to the bathroom floor.  She is decidedly un-self-pitying when she presents episodes of self-pity. When Liz personifies Depression and Loneliness as brutes trailing her through the streets of Rome, she does not cheapen her feelings but effectively transforms her emotional experience into something concrete and visual. By eliminating excessive discomfort and pain from her narrative voice, she is able to convey a painful episode from her past in a way that is curiously both comic and incredibly real.

It seems like it would be backwards to begin a journey to self-actualization along a path of self-deprecation, highlighting embarrassing aspects of the self in the interest of elevating it to a healthier, more productive place. But this modus operandi reinforces Swamiji’s profound utterance referenced in the Ashram: “God dwells within you, as you.” (191) For us to recognize God, we must first recognize ourselves. Just like the level of comfort demanded by a friendship where insults are tossed around freely, self-deprecation is both a means and a sign of knowing ourselves well.

My own experience with self-deprecation has been a healing process. I’ve had hyperhidrosis, a genetic glandular disorder that causes hyperactivity in the sweat glands, for as long as I can remember. This condition causes my hands sweat a lot more than the average person’s hands. For years, I tried desperately to hide this unpleasant aspect of myself, initiating awkward hugs to avoid dreaded handshakes and ducking out to the bathroom before the Our Father and sign of peace at mass. Each time that I expended energy trying to hide this thing that I had no control over, I ingrained more deeply the idea that this was something that required hiding.  Even today I still sometimes catch myself instinctively dodging self-acceptance, making lame excuses like “They ran out of paper towels in the bathroom” when someone calls me out on the excess of sweat permeating my palms.  But when it comes down to it, everyone sweats. As a sort of rebellion against the “new-you” fervor that comes with the new year, I took a leap at the beginning of the year and embraced my flaws in a comedic, exhaustively self-deprecating essay entirely about hyperhidrosis. It’s being published next month in one of Loyola’s literary magazines, The Forum, with my name (rather than “Anonymous”) gracing the byline.  At first, I resisted attempting to get it published, thinking it sufficiently self accepting to have written it at all. But I think that Liz Gilbert would agree that if you truly embrace yourself, flaws and all, not only will you not worry about people knowing it—you will want people to know it!  I think that the journey to self-acceptance is a core component of my highest purpose. As singular a journey as that may seem, it’s essential to invite others along for the ride so that they may be inspired to laugh and accept themselves in turn. 

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