I was recently sitting at a café in Miami when two teenaged girls walked past me with similar t-shirts saying: “I love ME”. It was obviously a play on the I love NY t-shirt, so I wondered why these young ladies felt they had to express their affection towards the Middle East. Was it out of solidarity? Out of concern? Was it that the recent developments in Egypt and Tunisia moved them so much that they had to express their admiration for that part of the world? It was only then that I realized that ME was not an acronym. These young ladies were simply expressing their affection towards themselves, and doing it so the whole world would see.
That is not a surprising image in the 21st century. Facebook and Twitter provide the ideal forum for people to share every detail of their lives, every mood they are going through and every meal they have eaten. In fact, they are so encouraged by others who “like” their statuses (the likers were probably referring to themselves and their own feelings towards the relevant experience/mood/meal). It’s not a bad thing to love oneself, it may not even be a bad thing to be self-centered, for after all, our “self” is the only lens through which we can see the world, and having a better understanding of this “self” enables you to understand the world and other people better. So what’s the problem?
In this day and age, understanding oneself has ceased to be an instrument for understanding the world in general and other people in particular. It has become the focus of most of our attention, one may argue to a crippling degree. Personal relationships, romantic ones or even simple friendships have taken on a different form, one in which each keeps asking herself: “what am I getting out of it?”. If the answer to this question ceases to satisfy her, she immediately ends it justifying it by claiming that it is somehow impeding her flourishing. But that is not the main problem: People are less able to empathize with others, making other people’s suffering less and less relevant to them. Most recently, one may note the paranoia of “toxic rain” from the meltdown of the nuclear power plant in Japan. We have somehow made the heartbreaking disaster of many people in a very distant land something about us. This shift of focus is often frightening, for if one mentions even a minor way some other man’s tragedy can affect your life, you can’t stop thinking about that, forgetting all about the tragedy. This is making people much less sensitive to other people’s suffering, be it the near ones or the far.
It is unsurprising that people love self-help books, and why The Secret was such a big hit. Constant scrutiny and careful examination are extremely useful epistemic tools, but they need to find a worthy object to be used on. Your “self” is not one of them.