On self-respect: The rough, the lovely

Illustration of a woman standing on a hill overlooking the Bay Area sunset
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I sit at my desk, in the corner of my room at my home in Los Altos, California. It’s the 13th day of the county’s shelter-in-place order and the 10th day of spring.

I’ve always felt that pause prompts one to see their circumstances more clearly. And today, as I sip my morning coffee, I am thinking about my circumstances.

I’m a third-year student here at UC Berkeley. My college years have not gone as I thought they would. As I already mentioned, I’m currently at home. But this isn’t all that strange for me, as I’ve come home quite often throughout college. It’s taken a lot of time for Berkeley to feel like home.

I’ve found real friends hard to come by, classes to be difficult and streets to be unsafe. 

I say jokingly to friends that Berkeley has been the kick in the ass I didn’t know I needed.

For this semester and the last, I’ve been a part-time student. I’m unsure of my summer plans and I’m looking for a job. I wonder sometimes if political economy was the best major for me. It’s dawned on me that English probably would’ve been more fitting.

My parents don’t pressure me. This is because they know I feel the pressure myself. And they know these uncertainties need not be a primary focus because of other goings-on I juggle at this time.

I itch to go to my mother and ask if it’s okay that I don’t know what I’m doing, if it’s okay I’ve leaned on home a lot, if everything will, in fact, be okay. It’d be of my previous character to tend to said itch. But today, I don’t. The pause of this pandemic has led me to a different outlook, which makes the need for external affirmation just silly.

Here at my desk, I feel that the truth of the matter is that talking to her would merely lend false solace. My mother may think these things are okay. But I still don’t think so. I personally recognize and feel that I am not where I want to be. I want to work my way through and out of what I’ll call my trickiness and into something I’ll call my better.

For Vogue in 1961, the whip-smart, lovely-bold Joan Didion, American writer and UC Berkeley alumna, wrote an essay called, “Self-respect: Its Source, Its Power.” In this piece, she explained that “innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself.” I think to myself that perhaps that’s what’s happened. I’ve lost my innocence.

I remember one night, during the spring of my freshman year, I was studying for an economics exam. I didn’t do well on the first midterm, and so I wanted to do better, be better, for the second. I was reviewing and practicing and reading in preparation, but to no avail, really. Something I’ve learned about myself is that once the crack of self-doubt takes shape in me, it will widen and fully cave in before I can proceed.

And so, I left my dorm room in Clark Kerr with hopes to recenter. I walked further and further into Berkeley’s hills, where the residence hall sits. It was dark and cold, but the city and the Bay before me were lit and gleaming.

Up until this point, I had felt that the only thing that stood between me and what I aspired to achieve was effort. But here, I had the chilling, dreadful and irritating feeling that maybe, just maybe, I actually wasn’t enough. That I could only do so well on the exam, and not even tremendous effort could surmount this reality. I felt I had to up my capability to a level beyond what I’d experienced to be true for myself.

Throughout my childhood, possibilities had felt infinite. But on these hills and with tear-stained cheeks, I felt bare, with a woeful urge to settle for mediocrity. Or, in Didion-terms, I felt my innocence torn out from beneath me.

But on these hills and with tear-stained cheeks, I felt bare, with a woeful urge to settle for mediocrity. Or, in Didion-terms, I felt my innocence torn out from beneath me.

There have been other blows to my innocence, too, pushing and pushing my life from its childhood. The trips home, the many changes of major, my eating disorder, a last-minute cancellation of my semester abroad, the burnout and an underlying confrontation with awful anxiety each step of the way.

Helplessness can fade, but it ruminates dismally. It is to be given a task, but there’s a film in your eyes. You want to do, but you cannot do. The film won’t let up. You blink, you blink, you blink. But your eyes just grow tired. This here is a vague metaphor, yes, but it is also a reoccurring dream of mine.

My college years have truly been the best of times. I’ve met the most wonderful friends, come across travel opportunities and rekindled my joy for writing, among many other positive experiences. But this essay is about how they’ve also been the worst. I’ve felt trapped in an inner-world that is no one else’s but my own. One that has drained me desolate, torn me sore, and left me in deep question.

The economics exam was two years ago. Not to say I no longer feel the way I did that night, but I do think I am departing from a tricky helplessness. I’ve been crystallized into self, and I have come to respect it.

Berkeley has hardened me with personal clarity. My periphery of being, the emotional and mental pandemonium, has narrowed, is more manageable, is less clouded. I’ve taken looks at it, deliberately and head-on, and made headspace separate from it.

I think this campus and this city have whipped me hard, but back-handedly they have gifted me with self-respect. From that, adulthood. And more largely, personhood.

Didion, in 1961, likely as she sipped her morning Coca-Cola, wrote that self-respect is “potentially to have everything.”And I agree with her.

A framed photo of my sister and me as toddlers is hung on the wall to my right, and a blanket I’ve had since birth is on the bed to my left. I’m home, but this time I feel adult. I better know my flaws and my shortcomings and what I’m to be wary of.

But with that, I grasp, stronger, my worth. I am not illegitimate, not broken and by no means bare. My euphoric, misguided delusion of excellence would have endured, though, for as long as I rode along without rupture. Berkeley was my rupture.

Though not all the people in my life believe me when I say this, I would choose Berkeley again and again. I now see more precisely what I lack, but I also see my potential and how I’m different. I feel I owe it to myself to pursue out of intention and compassion, rather than displaced drive.

It has been painful, then liberating, then painful, then liberating, time and time again. But the cyclical learning has nudged me to sit in better circumstances. I sit with and as myself. I nod to the imperfect, but I look forward.

Contact Kathryn Kemp at [email protected]