On New Year's Eve, I had an existential conversation of significant depth and breadth with a number of friends in our old 'hood in Libertyville on the tension between accepting ourselves as we are and striving to be better, and between pleasing ourselves vs. pleasing others. I have been struggling with these dilemmas -- consciously, and probably unconsciously -- for as long as I can remember, and so I thought I'd engage in some blogotherapy -- composing my thoughts, making them public, and opening up to the collective wisdom of the blogosphere.
The conversation started out with a number of very attractive 40-something women discussing cosmetic surgery. I interjected my negative judgments about cosmetic surgery, suggesting that the people contemplating various procedures simply accept themselves exactly as they are ... while acknowledging that this is something I rarely do myself. A couple of the women expressed a desire to receive compliments from others on their appearance (e.g., "you look great for 43"), and often feeling inferior when they compare themselves to other women. I then voiced my opinion that the root of much evil is people valuing others' opinions more than their own ... and acknowledged that I often fall into this trap myself.
One of the women asked me whether I strive to better myself in any way, and I said that I am continually striving for improvement in many dimensions of my life. She then asked whether I set my goals and measure my improvement based solely on internal metrics and motivations, or whether I look externally for comparison points and inspiration. I admitted that I often compare myself to others, but that I view this as a bug, not a feature ... but I do view the inspiration I receive from others as a Good Thing. She then asked whether my motivation for improvement involved any consideration of others or whether it was entirely an internal matter, and I told her that I wanted to make the world a better place for my self and others. So, she then asked what was wrong with a woman wanting to improve her physical appearance, especially if it served not only to look better for others but also to feel better about herself. I did not have a good answer.
The party started breaking up -- we had another New Year's party to go to -- but I kept ruminating on these issues. I rarely pay much attention to my own physical appearance, but am always eager to learn more, so I started applying some of these questions to intelligence -- is there anything wrong with wanting to take steps to become more intelligent? Is it OK to take intelligence-enhancing drugs? Is it OK to undergo intelligence-enhancing surgery? Is it OK to use intelligence-enhancing props?
I continued thinking along this vein, wondering whether anything I do is ever solely for myself (independent) or solely for others ([co]dependent?) or whether everything I do is motivated by some blending of consideration of my self and others (interdependent). This reminds me of another thread in the earlier conversation (relating to dependence), on the topic of artists -- I argued that the greatest artists are those that defy convention, doing or making things that many may consider unacceptable. The question arose of whether any artist can create something without reference to any other piece of art, and whether any artist can truly ignore the reviews of critics ... and whether a piece of art that is never accepted or valued by anyone is still, somehow, worthy.
What if everyone truly marched to his or her own tune, without any regard for anyone else? This seems almost as dangerous as everyone marching to the tune of a single drummer (totatlitarianism). So I suspect, as is so often the case, that some sort of middle ground or balance offers the greatest good for the greatest number ... but is such compromise a Good Thing?
I'm left with a sharper realization of these paradoxes -- I want to accept myself exactly as I am and I want to continuously improve myself ... and I want to please myself and I want to please others -- but I am no closer to resolving the conflict I often feel between the respective horns of these dilemmas.
Anyhow, speaking of acceptance, striving and interdependence, I've made some changes to the design of this blog. I decided to change the color of the banner to a bolder color, to better reflect the boldness (or gumption) I want to develop and embrace. I added a bunch of new TypeLists, most notably a blogroll, to better acknowledge the sources of inspiration I have encountered in the blogosphere. I considered many other changes, especially with respect to adding more entries to the blogroll, but I decided to stop, accept the current configuration, and hope that other bloggers I read or have read will not be displeased that I have not [yet] added them.
As this is my first post of the new year, I want to express my best wishes to any and all that you live well and prosper in 2006!
[Update, 6-May-2006: Metamanda points to some fascinating and relevant commentary and photos, A Web Essay on the Male Gaze, Fashion Advertising, and the Pose, in which the authors highlight the differences between the ways men and women see and are seen, drawing heavily on John Berger's Ways of Seeing, in which he noted, "Men 'act' and women 'appear.' Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at."]