“….Actually, throughout my life, my two greatest assets have been mental stability and being, like, really smart.” -Donald Trump via Twitter (January 6, 2018)
Oh, that was good. But here’s the thing. What exactly are his two greatest assets? Or yours? Or mine?
Trump’s tweet is funny/horrifying not only because it’s the exact opposite of correct, but because he has failed spectacularly at the most timeless and profound of human pursuits: to know oneself.
Socrates admonished us that the unexamined life is not worth living. But the world’s most powerful man seems to live in open mockery of the ancient Greek. To gaze upon him is to be cast in the dark shimmer of a soul so thoroughly incapable of introspection that when Trump is on his deathbed, his “Rosebud” moment will be pronounced in tones of “Everyone says I’m the best,” or “No one dies like I do,” or “Bring me a diet Coke.”
Thus, as if by sit-com writing formula, Trump’s cavalier effort to engage the greatest of challenges was doomed to a banana peel slip up far more jaw dropping and painful than anything ever filmed by Buster Keaton or The Three Stooges. Give him the setup (“What are your two greatest assets?”), and he can’t help but write the punch line.
For many of us, however, the grand quest for introspection is more tragedy than comedy, a tortured, unfinished novel rather than a furious tweet, the cruel taunting of unanswered questions as opposed to firm, imperial pronouncements from the White House bedroom as the Gorilla Channel booms in the background.
We are all quick to judge Donald Trump then, in part, because it seems so easy; his character is so achingly shallow. But also because it is always far safer to judge others.
To judge oneself is to play Russian Roulette with your spiritual essence. Because for every laudable attribute there is a bullet or two of dark secrets, disappointing shortcomings, and crippling fears.
Yes, let us mock Donald Trump, King of Obliviousness, and then let us turn the daggers inward and pour our own guts upon the floor. Let us best Caesar and not wait for Brutus and his hoard to do it for us. Let us finally know ourselves and then breath our last.
I don’t know what my best attributes, whether two or more or less, might be. Indeed, I find the very question to be repugnant. And not simply because I am not given to bragging; such is merely my personal demeanor, and I sometimes quite enjoy the braggadocio of others when done in an artful, timely and in an appropriately tasteful (or even appropriately distasteful) manner.
Rather, I suspect I am disinclined to recognize my own best attributes for the same reason that I loath the prospect of a birthday party so fiercely that I forbid friends and loved ones from ever throwing me one. And that genuine compliments render me, an otherwise confident and articulate person, quiet, discomfited, and fidgety. Say something nice about me and I’ll look to change the subject. Only in my mid-40s did I finally realize that this might come off badly and did begin forcing myself to develop a polite if wooden standard response: “Thank you, that’s nice of you to say,” before steering the conversation in a different direction.
This is no false modesty, mind you. Indeed, I cannot abide false modesty. When others display it, I’m roused by a combination of deep disgust and furious anger. I recognize that I do some things well and a small number of things better than most people. But I simply don’t like to dwell upon it, and I retch at the prospect of publicizing it.
And anyway, what one does well is hardly a marker of personage. I may be half-Protestant by birth, and Lutheran at that, but I do not believe that what we do makes us what we are, nor do I see divine expressions in earnest applications of craft; in many cases I often suspect a neurotic propensity to avoid the very topic of this essay. The studiously busy craftsperson, it seems to me, is often on the lam, either from debt or the voice within their own head, but either way are more bent on escape than revelation.
No, we are far more than the sum of our actions, and if one were to corner me and query my best attributes, and if I were forced to answer, I would likely point to personal abstractions such as temperament or a record of proclivities towards courage or honesty or loyalty. Not to say I can claim any of those things; they are merely examples of the things one might claim, but I do not.
Rather, the question that I would be much more at ease with is, What are my worst attributes?
Not that it’s an easy question of course. Even if readily identifiable, publicly admitting them is at best unpleasant. Nonetheless, I stand much more comfortably on the mossy ground of confession than I do on the flat slab of rodomontade. Happy? No. But comfortable.
For example, I’m comfortable noting that I have been trying, unsuccessfully, for some 35 years to work “rodomontade” into a sentence. And now that the moment has finally arrived, what do I come up with? The flat slab of rodomontade?
Good googly, man, that is some shitty writing. And I wrote it. Me. That sad pack of words, pecked from my very own keyboard with these fingers, almost as small as The Donald’s.
But more substantively, I’m also a coward in some circumstances. Not the typical male, macho stuff. I don’t fear physical danger anymore than the average person, probably less than most, although I certainly don’t go looking for it. And my fear of death is minor compared to most, not much beyond the basic flight/fight instinct. Rather, it is in certain emotional situations that I become weak and craven. It is amid a difficult conversation that might hurt another’s feelings, particularly an intimate’s, that my stomach turns in knots and my tongue, usually so quick to engage, hides quietly and uneasily between my clenched jaws.
After half a century on the planet, I think I understand why this is (no need to share with you), but knowing why and finding a way to do something about it are not the same, and thus I continue to entertain and amuse in shallow pursuits while failing gravely and silently during some of life’s most important conversations.
Another shortcoming is that I sometimes do not live up to my own values. Perhaps this is true of most people. Or perhaps most people just don’t have very good values. I honestly don’t know, and I suspect it doesn’t really matter. The bottom line is that I am something approaching a hypocrite.
I think most (but certainly not all) people engage in some degree of hypocrisy, and I do think that “hypocrite” is a bit too harsh in my own case; I don’t think it’s a defining characteristic by any stretch and I’ve never faced a serious accusation of it. But hypocrisy is rarely justifiable and nearly every shade of it is almost always unpleasant, so to know I have indulged here and there is enough to sicken myself just a little bit.
That is enough, I think. Enough introspection on the public stage, in honor of our braggart-in-chief. Enough to say that here are two of my shortcomings and none of my “best assets.”
Unless of course the third shortcoming is that I am coy, and all along I have believed my best assets are accepting criticism admitting the error of my ways, in which case I’ve done nothing but brag all along.
If that is the truth of it, then my two greatest assets have been mental opacity and being, like, really not that smart.