Emory Report

April 5, 1999

 Volume 51, No. 26

First person:

Reflections on an over-examined life: navel gazers unite!

It's high time someone gave us political recognition. Not that we'd ever actually vote, of course. We're far too busy working through The Artist's Way to leave the apartment for anything other than brie and cigarettes. But we like the idea of voting. We like the idea that social change is but an election ballot away--and personal transformation is as easy as e-mail.

If television personality Ally McBeal and radio therapist Dr. Laura Schlessinger were inverse halves of the same brain, they would exemplify the mind of the Postmodern Navel Gazer: the gourmet cheese-loving, expensively educated, Gen-X individualists who spend our waking hours trying to have our pain and ease it too. Heads without bodies (with sporadic alcohol-induced reversals), we applaud Dr. Laura's self-help sound bites while at the same time empathizing with Ally's endless neuroses. Is this fuzz in my navel lint or inconsistency?

At least three assumptions characterize the navel gazing mentality as I understand it:

  • Assumption 1: You believe that desire is better than satiation and take steps to ensure that you always want that which you can never have. Happiness is not sexy. Longing is.
  • Assumption 2: You boast a nihilistic exterior yet secretly believe The Truth is out there. But you want X-Files Agent Scully to find it for you. She's not a poet and she's not emaciated, so she has more time and energy than you to do that sort of thing.
  • Assumption 3: You gravitate toward quick-fix solutions to complex psychological and social problems. This Minute Rice approach helps ensure that while you continue to self-destruct, you can relax in the belief that change is just around the bend--should you ever decide to get out of bed and look for it.

Take my friend Gwen as an example. Gwen worships Dr. Laura with religious intensity. Her bookshelf displays Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives at one end and, to placate the feminists, Ten Stupid Things Men Do at the other. She listens faithfully to Dr. Laura's daily denunciations of codependence, moral indecision, working mothers and drug-puffing teens. "Instant therapy," Gwen calls her show.

Of course, she never actually follows Dr. Laura's advice. That would be taking things to an extreme. No, Gwen is quite content remaining, like Ally, perpetually unhappy; she's addicted to The English Patient and to angst-ridden Ally McBeal list-servs. She complains of having lost her "passion" for religion. She repeats relational mistakes dozens of times, then spends Kleenex-filled evenings rereading old journals. How could she have time to pursue a healthy relationship, a spiritual life or meaningful work? Thousands of eighth grade diary pages are still waiting to be deconstructed!

Every so often I experience doubts about the implications of postmodern navel gazing. Periodically I wake to looming questions I would rather let Scully--or maybe a licensed ethicist--address. What are the moral, social and political consequences of an over-examined life? Can a person care responsibly for his or her "self" without becoming solipsistic and without abandoning responsibility to the common or public good? Does Generation X need an ethic of self-reflection?

One could argue, after all, that Dr. Laura's tactics for self-reflection are highly unethical. She interrupts working mothers with unjustified accusations of greed and selfishness. She applies careless verbal Band-Aids to gaping psychological and social wounds. She doesn't listen; she simply swoops in for the therapeutic kill.

One could also argue that Dr. Laura is as myopic as her waifish opposite. Ally's television show is a celebration of destructive behavior; Dr. Laura's radio show is a two-second "solution" to lifelong patterns of destructive behavior. Neither program bothers to distinguish between damaging versus constructive forms of self-examination. Neither pauses to consider the consequences of representing ethical and psychological lethargy as entertainment.

Thankfully, however, I have discovered that coffee and cigarettes provide an excellent antidote to such bothersome late-night misgivings. Armed with mug and cancer stick, I can proclaim to my rapt stuffed animals that while solipsism, social responsibility and myopic stagnation might be worth addressing, I personally do not have the time or luxury to look into any of them.

This is because I am busy perfecting my use of the navel gazer's favorite academic term: "paradox." Paradox is a good word because it allows us to be as contradictory as possible without having to explain our actions or justify a lack of personal ethics. For example:

Question: "But Stacia, how can you applaud Dr. Laura's absolutist moralistic tone while at the same time wallowing in Ally's haze of moral and personal ambiguity?" Answer: "It's a paradox!"

See how handy the word is? Thank God for higher education.

Navel gazers, take heart: Contrary to what that awful therapist once told you, being pathologically unhappy or perpetually self-destructive is not a bad thing. Our supposed flaws are actually rare gifts: They not only provide poetic distraction from healthy relationships and from life's deepest questions, they also make terrific diet aids. Just look at Ally: She's so busy chewing on her own personal drama, her body has disappeared almost entirely.

Now that's what I call self-absorption.

Stacia Brown is program associate at the Center for Ethics.

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