The other day I had some time to kill before an appointment, so I stopped at a small outdoor mall and started browsing. This was a fairly chi-chi set of shops, and at the end of the row, there was a clothing store called "It's All About Me!"
Bemused, I went in. As I'd suspected from the name, the shop turned out to be one of those places where a cotton tank top with artful rips in it costs $90. Who buys this stuff? I discovered that a former student works there, and we had a pleasant chat, so I was glad I'd entered the store. Still, High-End Narcissism Boutiques always fill with me an odd mixture of exhaustion and despair, maybe because it really is so difficult for me to imagine who'd spend that kind of money on clothing that isn't going to last very long and isn't terribly unusual or attractive to begin with. I'm a writer, and I believe very strongly that the best fiction is an act of imaginative empathy, but I find it almost impossible to empathize with High-End Narcissism Boutique shoppers. The project leaves me feeling as if I'm contemplating a species of alien. There are many people who are far more apparently challenging -- televangelists, torturers, terrorists -- for whom I can at least begin to imagine worldviews and motivations. But when I try to enter the heads of people paying $90 for a ripped t-shirt, I draw a blank, even though my vast assortment of earrings and Keen sandals would, I'm sure, seem equally baffling to many of my fellow humans. My failure of imagination is my failure, not the failure of the t-shirt shoppers, and it bothers me.
A few days after I'd gone into "It's All About Me!", I heard a radio ad for a high-end health-club/spa in Reno called The Sanctuary. I've been unable to find a website for this place, but the ad had running water in the background (think Feng Shui waterfalls) and a soothing, flutey female voice listing all the spa amenities. The radio spot ended with the triumphant tag line, "The Sanctuary: where it's all about you!"
Okay, so it's not exactly news that consumer culture depends on fostering self-involvement. And I can easily imagine people for whom The Sanctuary would provide much-needed balance: harried soccer moms, stressed-out healthcare providers, frenzied chief executives. People who spend most of their time caring for others often desperately need self-care, and probably need a space away from the rest of their world where they can get it. These folks, I can sympathize with. Of course, that may be because last summer, I switched from our community swimming pool, with its maddeningly limited lap-lane hours, to a high-end private health club that has its own Feng Shui waterfall, not to mention hot and cold running amenities. I'm well aware that this makes me an alien to the many people who could never afford the place, even with the various incentives and discounts it offers.
Still, the message "It's All About Me!" (or "You!") makes me squirm. The flipside of that attitude is the rugged self-reliance for which Nevadans are particularly famed, a kind of individualism which to me, in its extreme forms, begins to look like pathology. I don't think it's any accident that Nevada consistently has one of the country's highest suicide rates: and no, it's not the tourists killing themselves. It's state residents. Take rugged individualism, throw in a dash of rural isolation, add alcohol and firearms, and you get one lethal stew. Too many people consider it shameful to ask for help, or don't know how. Too many people don't recognize how interdependent and interconnected all of us are, and how reliant on things we don't and can't do for ourselves. Do we make our own air and water? Do we pave our own roads or make our own cars? How many of us build our own houses, or even grow our own food?
One reason I love the church is because, at its best, it acknowledges interconnection and interdependence. That's exactly what the metaphor of the Body of Christ means: the people in a church, like any family, form one body with many cells and organs, and what happens to one affects the whole.
And like any family, church families go through ups and downs, communication problems, situations where one person's behavior hurts somebody else. Really, this is just small-group dynamics. It happens everywhere; it's no surprise. But over the past few years, several church friends with whom I've tried to discuss such situations have said crossly, "It's not about you!"
Oh, so now I'm not part of the Body of Christ? Or you aren't? Either one of us can do whatever we want, with no thought whatsoever to how our behavior affects other people? If I believed that, I really would think it was all about me. (And on at least one occasion, I've been dismayed to learn that someone had been upset with me for months and hadn't said anything. I can't fix the problem if I don't know about it.)
I once heard a tired hospital staffer, who's since moved on to another job, grumble about a grandmother who was very upset about a very sick child, "She needs to shut up and deal. This isn't about her."
The truth is that, especially in a small and tightly-knit group, everything's about everybody.
It's not all about me, but neither is it not about me.
It's also about me.