Monday, March 15, 2010

The Narcissism of Altruism

My fourth life partner, N— came from a big, loving, attractive, largely blond Anglo-Swedish family from New Jersey that put me in mind of Diane Keaton’s character’s family in Annie Hall, except none of N—‘s family was a lunatic. They all welcomed me warmly, and it made me terribly uncomfortable; couldn’t they see who and what I was? Their all being so generous and accommodating with one another was utterly alien to me, and I reacted as I have traditionally reacted since junior high school — by being acerbic. The more forbearing they were in response, the more acerbic I got. It was as though I was daring them to continue to pretend to like me.

(That, of course is par for the course for us damaged types. Because we believe ourselves deep down to be undeserving of love, someone loving us has the effect of making us fearful — surely the love will be cruelly snatched away when The Other realizes whom he or she is dealing with. In an extremely maladaptive way, we try to prevent this by beating them to the punch. Our taking control and making them cease to love us will be less hurtful than their ceasing to love us on their own.)

Anyway, I appointed myself N—‘s family’s authenticity monitor. When N—’s elder brother’s wife and N—‘s elder sister would laugh far too loudly at each other’s jokes — would try far too hard, in my eyes, to appear to be reveling in the pleasure of each other’s company — I would sneer and say something scabrous, which the family, scrupulously gracious, would usually pretend to find darned amusing too.

How not-amusing they’d found it became clear after N— and I called it a day after 11 years and I, against all odds. became quite good friends with her elder brother, one of the sweetest people on earth. We began playing a lot of racquetball, and a bit of basketball, and even had a couple of dinners together. But then I discovered that his wife S—, having apparently found my mordant sense of humor just barely endurable all those years, had forbade him to invite me over.

Fair enough. But then, in September 2007, my mother died, and S— was quick to convey her condolences, and her doing so pissed me off. She wanted no part of me in life, but if I my mother died, I could count on her doing The Right Thing? It seemed to me that she was trying to inscribe her great graciousness all over my loss.

A former friend of mine used to do something in the same vein. At any party, he’d make a point of making the most alienated, awkward-seeming person on the premises feel irresistibly charming. It was an extremely kind thing to do, but I began after a while to wonder how much narcissism was involved. Look how selfless and wonderful I’m being.

Or maybe that’s my own deep insecurity speaking. Two things would have kept me from a similar course of action. Less salubriously, it’s with the glamorous and desirable I want to be seen, not those as awkward as myself! But another fear, which I don’t think my friend shared, was that the person would fall in love with me, and then I’d be in a position to hurt her terribly when I revealed that all I’d found attractive was her need of me. Over the course of our friendship, I saw my friend make more women than I could count fall in love with him, and most of them wound up getting at least slightly bruised.

While working for Dada Entertainment last winter, I suggested as a promotional idea distributing Dada-branded blankets to midtown Manhattan’s homeless. Another friend of mine was appalled, believing that any such contribution should be anonymous. It seemed to me, though, that the whole thing being in large part a brazen publicity ploy wouldn’t make the blankets any less warm. Why shouldn’t the company enjoy greater brand-awareness as a result of an act both self-serving as altruistic?

My distaste for S—‘s having done The Right Thing after my mother’s death used to feel irreconcilable with my finding unobjectionable putting Dada’s logo on blankets for the homeless. Now, though, I realize why it isn’t: in the second case, no bones are being made about the self-serving part.

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1 comment:

  1. However parenthetical, the second paragraph is a milestone in Mendels(s)ohnia.