Narcissus in Broken Glass

Q: Are we here? Are we here if there is no one to see us existing?


There is a story, a throwaway from the age before political correctness, of a sane king in a kingdom of lunatics. As the tale is told there were two drinking wells in the tiniest of cities: one served the king and his family and the second was relegated to the peasantry.

As so often happens in the odd twists and turns of fate the well that served the villagers became contaminated. Anyone who drank the water did not gain eternal life but went quite undeniably mad.

Soon the whole village was indeed crazy but for the king and his family whose own well-water remained pure, it was then that the king’s problems began in earnest. He discovered that his edicts, which previously bore the weight of Mosaic stone tablets, now mimicked inspired babble and little else.

Unrest tainted the air and soon the rumblings of a revolution began. The king, who had not known fear, was afraid. What should he do when he could no longer understand the people he claimed to lead?

It was the queen who saved the day. She pointed out that all the villagers shared one well and that it may offer an answer to the problem that confounded them. If the king wanted to understand his people again then maybe they too should drink from the people’s well.

The king took the advice and, pied-piper style, led his family to the well. They drunk the water and were born again into the freedom, perhaps, that only true madness can give.

When the king next addressed the people, their confidence was restored: “See,” they said to one another, “How wise our king is?”

Aida Muluneh

Art by Aida Muluneh

The real trouble with any idea of self-image is the near impossibility of separating how people perceive us from how we perceive ourselves. It is that question: are you here if no one sees you existing? That is the only the first problem, here is the second: if we cannot separate who we are from who people think we are then what is the basis of our self-worth?

“It is you who know yourself and the value you set on yourself and at what rate you sell yourself because different people sell themselves at different prices,” said Epictetus.

But is that true: do we know the value we set on ourselves, do we determine our own worth?

Which would you prefer? All factors held constant, to earn Ksh 80,000 pm in a city where the average salary is Ksh 100,000 or to earn Ksh 50,000 in a city where the average salary is Ksh 30,000?

Psychologists who posed this question came up with the same confoundingly counter-intuitive answer: people would rather take home less money (Ksh 50,000) provided they made more than those around them.

Epictetus, it would seem, is wrong: people do not know what value they should set on themselves. This is largely because we don’t think in absolutes. Owing to this the price we set on ourselves shifts depending on our point of reference.

Based on this both our self-image and our self-worth are not, as we would hope, things that we give to ourselves but qualities we glean from our environment. This sounds perfectly disastrous. Where is our agency, our power to choose, that liberating and equally mortifying concept of shaping our own destiny?

If the community around us bears such great a pull on our inner Narcissus then it seems that there are three options open to us to change our own sense of self-image and self-worth. We can break off and establish our own communities, we can change our point of reference or we can conform.

There’s a curious reality I heard recently about conspiracy theorists who were convinced that the government was tracking them. Living on the fringes of society gaining little traction around their grandiose theories, they came together to discuss them amongst themselves.

One of the rules in place at these gatherings, the cardinal rule, is that members are barred from discussing their ideas with outsiders. What is created then is a perfect ecosystem where the self-image of this person is vindicated in the eyes of people who are like them, who listen to them, but more importantly, who see them and accept them. There is of course the tiny, itty bitty problem of the ensuing echo chamber, but oh well, the economists call those trade-offs.

This is the first solution: to join a community that affirms our self-image and self-worth.

There is a phenomenon that we will call, for the sake of simplicity, the silver problem. Psychologists studying world athletes have discovered that silver is the worst medal to receive. Athletes who get it are more disappointed than their bronze counterparts. This is attributed to counterfactual thinking.

Explained simply: silver medallists are more likely to ‘compare up’ and realise how close they were to the gold only to miss it. These rule of thumb applies even to Olympic athletes who must perceive, at some level, that winning silver means that they are at that moment the second-best athlete in their sport in the world.

The silver problem exists because, again, we don’t think in absolutes. Curiously enough, the bronze medallists are seen to be happy, at least happier than the silver medallists. Why? Because they compare downwards. They were a few seconds from not getting any recognition at all and can appreciate all the other athletes behind them who got nothing.

Thus, we get our second alternative: changing our point of reference and comparing down instead of up.

The third option is to conform; to become the ideal that society sets for those it worships, or at the very least, accepts. But this becomes increasingly difficult in a world where we are connected to all other seven billion inhabitants. Powered by internet comparison now happens on a ridiculously wide spectrum.

You log onto Instagram and someone is running a 10k at five in the morning; another is baking a four-layer cake, yet still another has set up a full live concert in their living room…and then there’s you. You can barely run, if you tried to bake you can be sure at least one thing would burn: the cake, you, or the house.

Conformity may have been easy in a town of 100 people, but now, what are you to conform to?

We are a product of our community, the one we choose, and the one that is given to us. We must piece together who we are from the confusion of all the different opinions that hold our delicate world together. It is, also, sadly the case that these communities have within them the capacity to destroy us. Often times, our family, our friends, our lovers, the very people we trust with our fragility will tug at the string that will unravel the delicate harmony of parts that we sold as who we are.

Ivan Forde

Art by Ivan Forde

In a passage in Giovanni’s Room, David laments of his lover that,

“I was the only person on God’s cold, green earth who cared about him, who knew his speech and silence, knew his arms, and did not carry a knife. The burden of his salvation seemed to be on me and I could not endure it.”

The privilege to love someone, be loved by them, is also consequently sometimes, the power to be destroyed by them.

It is dangerous, then, to make of any one person or even group of people the barometer of your self-image and self-worth. Alain de Botton says that in love what we seek is not happiness but familiarity. We may find that while looking for validation for who we are we end up picking people who only echo our own fears that we have failed or that we are ruined irredeemably.

What is to be done then if our view of ourselves is bound so tightly with other people’s perception of us but that very fact makes us a target that can be so easily wounded? Well, we can follow the counsel of Bukowski,

“If you have the ability to love, love yourself first”.

This means finding internal validation for who you are. Validation based on things you can do for yourself. I used to swim back in high school (not exceptionally, you understand, but okay enough) and one of the greatest concepts I found was the idea of swimming against your own time. What you are trying to beat, in that instance, is not an external bar of what excellence counts as but your own. Epictetus may have been right after all, that we are the only ones with the power to determine our value.

For every question a million answers, but hear me out, this is the one I think works: you must have two things to survive the requirement that you be both of the world and above it. One, that you learn to trust yourself enough to move very lightly in this world with all its waves and tides. Second: to constantly, fiercely, believe that there is nothing on the earth you really couldn’t do, nothing that you could not overcome.

Baldwin prayed once that life do us the honor to demand that we learn to live every day both within our limits and beyond them. It is unlikely that you will simultaneously be the fastest person you know, the best cook, the best bass player, and so on. But you can always run a little faster than you did yesterday and make a cake better than you did the week before. And that is a far better anchor to base your self-image and self-worth than the changing demands of the world around you.

Look: we will always bear the weight of doubt in ourselves and in our worth but we can decide how much of that burden will be based on other people’s opinions of who we are and what we can do. We can try to tip the scales by making ourselves the final judge on the weight we give other people’s perceptions of us. In this way we never make anyone other than ourselves the arbiter of our happiness.

Bukowski asked us to love ourselves first, that was only part of it, the poem continued,

“But always be aware of the possibility of total defeat, whether the reason for the defeat is right or wrong, an early taste of death is not necessarily bad thing”.

Ultimately, we will doubt ourselves constantly and unfailingly: when we lose a job, as we sift through rejection letters, when a friend pulls away and when lovers, as they do, leave. Then it will seem that we are not worth very much, that we are worth very little, worth almost nothing even. But we are a wonder, an unprecedented miracle, and we will live through our little deaths. If we remain committed to our own anchors of validation we will be okay, as they say, in the end. Okay enough to yell, “Encore! Encore!” when the fat lady sings.

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