I’ve been feeling sick lately, with symptoms that were unfamiliar to me, and ultimately I got so preoccupied with myself that I had to go to the doctor. It feels as though the main symptom of my illness has been a morbid self-fascination, a biofeedback gone haywire, which has be constantly monitoring myself to the exclusion of all external stimuli, so that the sheer act of communication feels like an unbeliveable nuisance — do you mind? I’m trying to hear the blood coursing through the veins in my ears. Wait — was that a palpitation?
This started me thinking that self-awareness itself is the very definition of illness, the core symptom that underlies all experiences of being sick. Whatever your ailment, you are thrown back upon yourself in a way you normally aren’t, foecred to think of yourself and your body first, before you can agree to any course of action, before you can conduct any kind of social exchange. And the degree to which our society encourages self-awareness, self-monitoring (c.f. Weber’s argument in The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), is the degree to which ours is a sick society. There is no greater freedom than the freedom from thinking constantly about yourself, which is basically the definition of insecurity. Our culture, however, is an insecurity-generating machine, with the consumer economy based on selling things meant to assuage the insecurity carefully engineered not only by omnipresent ads, but by the very discourses that structure the way we conceive of ourselves (the law, medicine, education, etc.). Sickness is an awareness of a lack — or at least we’ve come to see it that way, because so much of our life experience revolves around perceiving lacks in ourself and trying to rectify them. We are missing some right, some piece of clothing, some feeling of self-possession. Every moment of self-awareness seems like a moment of owning ourselves, but its really a furtive admission that we don’t have self-possession, that are desperate self-inventories are just cataloging the ways in which we are dependent on the structures around us to feel an illusion of completion, of security.
When I went to the doctor, I was trying to shift the burden of my self-awareness onto her, make her be aware of me, instead of it being my sole responsibility. This is what people are constantly doing by trying to get on TV, or by making films of themselves, or by vicariously projecting themselves into reality shows. They are trying to share the burden of their self-regard by becoming aware of how much others are regarding them. This is why the temptation to hypochondria is strong. It’s hard to be honest with the doctor, when she asks you to describe your symptoms. I always feel like I’m telling a story, and telling it wrong, badly, and I feel the urge to spruce it up with some more colorful symptoms, with more exciting details. To embellish it. I don’t want to disappoint her. In some ways I was confessing, in other ways I was offering a defense for myself. But I was acutely aware that the me I was describing in laying out my symptoms was not the me I live with in my consciousness, day in, day out, especially the me that has been paranoid about my health. I was talking in this utterly phony voice, a voice I use when I’m talking to bank tellers or barbers. How could this inane chit-chat do anything to resolve my health concerns? Shouldn’t they be sticking me into the CAT scan machine? Drawing blood or something?
But now, having had the doctor’s benediction, I’m able to think about something else rather than my symptoms. Nothing has changed, but yet everything’s diffferent. I’m aware of different appetites now then I was a few hours ago. All she needed to do was not seem especially alarmed by what I was telling her, and I was suddenly free to move on myself. Its amazing what a moment of attention can do for you.