Re­lax­ing into our flawed, lim­ited selves

The East African - - MAGAZINE | BOOKS - - Sara Eckel, Wash­ing­ton Post

Selfie: How We Be­came So Self-ob­sessed and What It’s Do­ing to Us may ap­pear to fit in the genre of poppsy­chol­ogy books that prom­ise to shed light on the hu­man con­di­tion while also telling us how to be more pro­duc­tive, per­sua­sive or in some other way climb a rung or two higher on the win­ner’s lad­der. But this book is no life hack. Rather, in this psy­cho­log­i­cal and so­cial his­tory, Will Storr — who has pub­lished three other books and is a sea­soned for­eign cor­re­spon­dent — re­veals how bi­ol­ogy and cul­ture con­spire to keep us striv­ing for per­fec­tion, and the toll that can take.

Selfie il­lus­trates how slip­pery our iden­ti­ties can be and how quickly we’ll ac­com­mo­date them to the world around us. We are, he shows, wired to seek ex­cel­lence. But it’s not a ques­tion of “na­ture vs nur­ture” but “na­ture and nur­ture”. Our brains, he tells us, pla­gia­rise ma­te­rial from cul­ture to help us fit in. “Voices from long-dead minds haunt us in the present, of­ten with­out our con­scious aware­ness,” he writes. “Ar­gu­ments they’ve made, feuds they’ve waged, bat­tles they’ve fought, best-sell­ers they’ve writ­ten, revo­lu­tions they’ve trig­gered, in­dus­tries and move­ments they’ve raised and de­stroyed, all live within us.”

Storr de­con­structs th­ese in­flu­ences — from the hero wor­ship of an­cient Greece to the ne­olib­er­al­ism of Sil­i­con Val­ley — to show how West­ern cul­ture ar­rived at its cur­rent ideal: The out­go­ing and ath­letic in­di­vid­u­al­ist, the fear­less and tal­ented op­ti­mist who works hard, dreams big and be­lieves that any­thing is pos­si­ble. He con­trasts this with Eastern cul­ture, which fo­cuses on group har­mony.

The book takes read­ers on a long and com­pli­cated jour­ney through cen­turies of re­li­gion, lit­er­a­ture and economics. Storr’s es­sen­tial point is that the so­ci­etal cheer­lead­ing that pushes us to be­come the most glam­orous and con­fi­dent ver­sions of our­selves ac­tu­ally makes us mis­er­able be­cause we fall short of that ideal.

For Storr, who as a teenager fell for self-es­teem pros­e­lytis­ing, this is per­sonal. “That ‘golden city on top of a hill’ I’d imag­ined — the place that, when I reached it, would mag­i­cally trans­form me into the per­fect ver­sion of my­self — was a mi­rage,” he writes. The au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal pas­sages are a very small part of Selfie, but Storr’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity ends up qui­etly bol­ster­ing the book’s mes­sage. Storr, by his own de­scrip­tion, is a mis­an­thropic, fre­quently self-loathing in­tro­vert, the po­lar op­po­site of our cul­tural ideal. And yet, you like the guy.

Sure, books promis­ing to make you a bet­ter par­ent or mid­dle man­ager by the time your plane hits the tar­mac may of­fer use­ful tips: They may help you nav­i­gate the sys­tem. But by ex­pos­ing the cul­tural con that says we can be any­one we want to be, Selfie in­vites to us to re­lax into our flawed, lim­ited selves.

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