In her 1968 anthology of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion writes confidently about the practical necessity of self-respect:
However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.
We may think that moral reflection is a luxury of time and energy, but Didion reminds us that the question of self-respect lurks behind every decision we make. A person of character knows this, and a person lacking character will do anything to avoid it.
And yet it’s much harder to live without self-respect than it is to live with it. Take, for instance, Didion’s recommendation for finding self-respect even amidst a storm of tears and emotion:
It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one’s head in a Food Fair bag.
When the choice is between being an unwilling audience to all of your failures, alienated from yourself and at the mercy of those whom you can’t help but hold in contempt, and taking a moment to try and broadcast your outrage through a paper bag, I choose bag.