Popeye’s Paradox

A few years ago, a friend of mine from college, Andrew Forsthoefel, walked across the country. I had the privilege of being there at the Pacific Ocean when he finished his 5,000-mile journey and jumped into the Pacific Ocean.

Andrew wrote a brilliant book about his experience, Walking to Listen, and although I read the book nearly two years ago, one passage in particular has stuck with me. Andrew writes:

I sat down, my reflection staring back at me [in the mirror], and for a few seconds, before the self-consciousness of my ego scrambled up the purity of the message–Don’t look at yourself in the mirror, you fucking narcissist!–I understood what Archie was saying. It was simple: I was what I was looking for, not someone else, some teacher or lover or friend, some epic epiphany. Not some other version of myself, either. Just me, exactly as I was seeing myself now. There was nothing inside me to fix or get rid of. Nothing to add. “I exist as I am, that is enough,” Whitman wrote.

As I see it, Andrew’s big epiphany in his book is that there would be no epiphany. Instead, he needed to accept himself for what he is.

I believe there is deep wisdom in this. As I’ve grown older, I have come to realize that I won’t undergo some radical transformation that comes with adulthood; instead I strive to accept myself for who I am. I want to linger for a moment on just how important this message of self-acceptance is — I believe it is one of the most important things I have to work on. As I go about my days, I find myself repeating the purest articulation of this idea — which naturally comes from Popeye The Sailor: “I am what I am and that’s all that I am.”

And yet, particularly in mainstream American culture, this aspiration for self-acceptance can be dangerous. This message of self-acceptance can lead to too much of a focus on the self at the expense of one’s obligation to others. It is easy to think of Americans, particularly affluent ones, who focus on themselves at the expense of what should be there obligation to others. And besides, a singular focus on the self seems to be a recipe for unhappiness.

But on a deeper level, I am reminded of Reinhold Niebuhr’s neo-Orthodox belief that sin is an inherent part of human nature. In this view of humanity, there is a problem with becoming our true selves because are true selves are in part fundamentally defective. I am also reminded of one of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ insights that I have quoted before; Coates believes that we should look at the horrors of history not as examples of other people doing terrible things, but instead as examples of the horrible things we could do. Together, Niebuhr and Coates could come up with plenty of examples of the horror humans can perpetuate in the name of what they think is right.

And so I think Andrew is absolutely right about the need for self acceptance  — but this need for self-acceptance brings up a fundamental paradox (dare I call it Popeye’s paradox?). We should strive to accept ourselves for what we are, but at the same time we should be eternally vigilant about who we are and the injustices we are capable of.

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