Personality is built, not bought
On goopy celebrity kitsch, faux masculinity, and the meaningful middle ground of openness to others backed by toughness within
Judging by Google search traffic, "self-care" has never been more popular than it is in 2022. Taking care of oneself is, of course, an entirely prudent thing to do.
■ But it's hard not to detect at least some undertones in the ascendant cult of "self-care" (and some of its allied movements) that are meant to hobble its adherents, handcuffing them to routines that emphasize escape over accommodation. Life can be hard, and there is no amount of goop you can buy from a celebrity's website to make the hardness go away.
■ There is something of a mirror to the cult of self-care in the cult of faux masculinity. It doesn't take much searching to find examples of men dressing up in military-surplus costumes or turning ordinary consumer products into inexplicable confirmations of manhood. The aesthetic is all too often tied to an over-compensatory rejection of feelings as weakness.
■ Of these two, the first is almost always associated with a welcoming, open-minded mindset. The second is seen as closed and hostile. The first looks like it could shatter at any moment, while the second would have you believe it is prepared for the worst.
■ The problem in both of these cases is that popular culture has these ideas all jumbled up. Open-mindedness -- towards ideas, people, and approaches to problems -- is a vital tool in the kit of any well-functioning adult. It's a powerful weapon to be open to persuasion and difference; Dwight Eisenhower counseled in favor of this kind of liberality when he said, "A nation's hope of lasting peace cannot be firmly based upon any race in armaments but rather upon just relations and honest understanding with all other nations."
■ But no amount of openness can be of much use unless it's tied to a sense of resilience. Sure, everyone needs to take a break once in a while. But celebrating fragility over resilience -- internalizing every setback, hurdle, or frustration as an injury in need of repair rather than accepting the inevitability of setbacks as a fact of life -- is a sure way to teach people a sense of helplessness.
■ People can (and should) be both kind and strong, both compassionate and gritty. Under circumstances far more trying than Americans encounter today, Booker T. Washington wrote, "I am learning more and more each year that all worry simply consumes, and to no purpose, just so much physical and mental strength that might otherwise be given to effective work."
■ Perhaps the underlying problem is the drive to commoditize personality, to convert "Who you are" into a thing that can be sold from a rack. Such things cannot be done, any more than a child becomes a real ghost by putting on a Halloween costume. Personality is built, not bought.
■ Though it may seem quaint to call an experience a "character-building exercise", fundamentally it is true: No small part of the construction of any person's true self will take place under challenging conditions. We share a common interest in encouraging people to show open-mindedness to others and to the world. But we also have a vested interest in seeing those open-minded people develop an interior robustness. No life will go without obstacles, and it's no use becoming convinced that the answer is a helpless attachment to frequent surrender.