I had a friend a while back, whom I don’t see that much any more. Actually, more of a good acquaintance, since her personality makeup seemed to be such that friendship with anyone, or a least most people, was impossible. Her focus was entirely on self. There was no sharing of inquiries or ideas. Conversation was mostly one way–I ask the questions, she answers. Particularly animated when discussing herself and her circumstances.
It wasn’t simply a disinterest in me, but rather a disinterest in everyone, other than how they related to her current concerns. And even there, the “interest” in others was more how their behaviours affected her, rather than any interest in the circumstances of the persons behind such behaviours.
It would be easy to dismiss such a person as conceited or immature, or both. Here is where the paradoxes start. She was many years younger than I, but far from immature. One of the toughest, most self-reliant people I have met in a long time. There was also a complete absence of conceit, to the extent that one is referring to a love of self. She didn’t love herself, not by a long shot, but she remained focused on self. I saw this as a survival mechanism that I had observed in certain persons, particularly persons under stress and insecure. In the same way that we are often most arrogant when we are most marginal, or most vulnerable…well, she seemed to be more in that zone.
I remember at one law firm, a lawyer I knew there was being put on ice. The cold purgatory before the involuntary exit. I saw him one afternoon, and he spent most of our time together extolling his own virtues. I’m on ice, but I must focus on how wonderful I am, or else I’ll go stone cold and never get up.
My good acquaintance was the one who generally initiated contact. I began to think that she regarded me as a good interviewer. While she focused on herself and her self-referenced world, it wasn’t a happy focus or the “I’m so wonderful” zone. It was more along the lines of I don’t like a lot of what is happening around me, but must concentrate all my energy on myself to survive it. Thanks for the interview. No shoulder awash with tears. Just me, her, and the interview studio of the moment.
Thought back to where I knew this very well before. It was 1978-1979, when the late Margo Davidson, of Parachute Club futures, was staying at my apartment for a few months. Same toughness. Same self-focus. Similar to my recent acquaintance, I don’t recall Margo ever expressing an interest in my own circumstances. Similar to my recent acquaintance, there was also no conceit. No elevated sense of self, but survival through focus on self. Unclear then as now as to whether such a focus also translates into an understanding of self. For a Christmas present to her aunt and uncle, Margo put together an album of photos, news clipping and posters of herself and her bands at the time. I knew she had little money, but there seemed to be no concept of creating a gift for relatives that was other than self-referenced. She thought an album of herself was the perfect gift. As the recipient of some of the flakes of her life at the time, I would have welcomed the album as a gift, so perhaps her aunt and uncle did, as well. It certainly means a lot more now, in view of her untimely death.
Another dimension to both: hardness, but not meanness. Pure conceit is frequently associated with meanness towards others. While both were cool towards many others, they were both quite kind to those whom they felt particularly close to–which, in both cases, seemed to be limited to immediate family members.
The problem with this ego is that the “friends” as interviewers ultimately go away. Margo Davidson, suffering for an extended period from depression and alcoholism, where self-centredness is not necessarily self love, died with no publicly-acknowledged partner. I can’t see my current acquaintance, with similar attitudes, connected with anyone, long term. Self as its own lonely stroll.