The Perils of Self-Esteem

Imagine a nation’s armies have suffered the most catastrophic and humiliating defeat imaginable. Generals once thought to be geniuses prove themselves dimwitted, gouty time-servers. Troops expected to fight to the death panic and surrender in droves. The nation becomes the punch line in jokes that go, “I’ve got a great special on some _____ rifles: never fired, only dropped once!” The jokes never get old.

Where does the nation go from there?

If history’s any guide, the nation makes a project of falling in love with itself all over again. It backs a new government, one likely headed by a demagogue who demands Strength and Discipline, promising Honor and Power in return. The defense budget explodes, national service becomes mandatory, and increasingly fabulous uniforms sport increasingly gruesome insignia. Perhaps an arcane symbol appears on the national flag. Ancient heroes, historical and mythical, become the objects of a cult of kitsch, turning up everywhere from statues to postcards. Before long, even the architecture starts to swagger.

All this is by way of analogy. For the past few months, since suffering a sort of Caporetto di cuore – in plain English, an instance of being dumped and dive-bombed in a particularly demoralizing way — I’ve been in psychotic right-wing renewal mode. My personal re-armament plan is taking place largely at the local L.A. Fitness. To my astonishment, results so far have exceeded expecations. These days, flexing in the mirror feels like watching my crack regiments pass in review, colors dipped, eyes right. A couple of Friday nights ago, when a fistfight broke out around my apartment complex’s swimming pool, the combatants allowed me to play peacemaker and voice of reason. Since that honor normally falls to someone who looks capable of banging heads together in a pinch, I enjoyed the sense of having forestalled an Anschluss by marching my troops into the Brenner Pass.

But, as any student of history knows, revived-weenie nations are never content to use their powers for good. Only bringing the pain to someone else satisfies them, and that usually ends up being their downfall. I have reason to fear the analogy will extend that far with me. I’ve gone through other fitness kicks, but never when I had so much to prove nor so much shame to displace. Now that I’m in these-boots-are-made-for-marching mode, I feel the pull toward the dark side. Several times over the past few weeks, I’ve shot menacing looks to guys who jostled me on the line at Circle K. I snapped at a guy who barged in after I’d forgotten to lock the door to Subway’s bathroom behind me. It’s just as well I don’t go to bars anymore. There’s a place in my neighborhood called Daisy Duke’s. I’ve never been inside, but in my imagination, I see sawdust on the floor and hear “Harper Valley P.T.A.” coming from the jukebox — the perfect ambience, in other words, for growing a fatal set of beer muscles.

Of course, caving some poor slob’s face in with a pool stick has never been the easiest, or most pleasant, way for a man to de-emasculate himself. Sure enough, I’ve seen some troubling signs that fitness and self-confidence will prove obtacles to living a life of virtuous bachelorhood. The night of the poolside punchup, a woman undertook a lengthy, hands-on (and, I swear, unbidden) inspection of my gluteus maximus. This person was nice enough to look at, at least in pitch darkness, but had an IQ equal to her blood-alcohol content. If she turned out to have the words “DELAY MIDLIFE CRISIS HERE” tattooed somewhere near her bikini line, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.

I know: how precious. Come on, sweet prince, now that you’re fast becoming the master mold of whoop-ass, quit ruminating and do what you have to do. Forget about great men and dialectical materialism — senseless brawls and pick-me-up hookups are the real drivers of history, if the truth be known. The Creator must have willed it so, or else he’d never have vouchsafed to Noah the secrets of the vine (nor to others the secrets of hops and barley and grain and the coca leaf). He’d never have cracked the mysteries of the workout for the Greeks. In the fullness of time, man would never have harnessed his genius to these gifts to create barbells and dumbells and Smith machines and muscle milk on the one hand, and bars, taverns and saloons on the other. Certainly, to hasten the reaction that results when the two combine, he wouldn’t have concocted a catalyst called country and western music. Don’t reinvent the wheel, schmuck; just join the party.

A former pastor of mine once named the two distinguishing characteristics of his youthful self as “low self-esteem” and “overweening pride.” Those traits drove him to join an especially rigid sect of Bible Christians. Well, I’ve no doubt pre-Father was a complete pain in the ass, but with the perspective of maturity, he managed to pin down the two reasons why my enduring inner 11th-grader won’t let me live out my high-school dreams at the age of 40. Slurping from the established soup plate of honor is just…boring. Unimaginative.

If I really wanted to give the game away, I’d say conformist. Practicing the self-restraint Jesus preached validates the thing under the muscle tissue: the sulky dork who boycotted both junior and senior proms, and spent spring breaks reading books like Girls in Trouble: Sexuality and Social Control in Rural Scotland, 1660-1780; the one who discovered the sybaritic life only after he was too old to live it with dignity. It answers his need to be cool in a way only another cool person could recognize.

The font in which I received the sacrament of baptism wasn’t a real font at all. It was one of those aluminum tubs you normally see filled with ice, along with bottles of Corona and Rolling Rock, at patio bars throughout the Valley. Some of the handier parishioners had covered the outside with gray papier-mâché and plastic flowers, along with some real palm fronds (a local specialty). Their goal was to transform the beer tub into a rock-encircled pond, presumably one somewhere in the neighborhood of the Jordan River. Never having toured the Holy Land, I can’t speak with authority, but I found the result halfway convincing. This suggests to me that there are worse paths to Christianity than an nsistence on tarting up the ordinary.

Is this a case of grace building on nature? Hell if I know, but I’m compelled to think so when I recall leaving that chick in the lounge chair and bedding down alone. Consciously, I was aping Alan Ladd, not Jesus. But when you think about it, “Noli me tangere” and “Shane, come back!” fit nicely together in sequence, don’t they? Anyway, either role model is a big step up from Mussolini.

A Strange New Rosary
Unfriending Jack Without Friending Bill
The Devil I Know
New Arab Saints: A Fountain of Virtue to the Thirsty

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