On Self-Consciousness (With Thanks to Robert Burns’ “To a Louse”)

When I was at my indoor cycling class yesterday, I started to notice some agitated motion in my field of vision—which is a bit unusual, since the bikes are stationary and we’re furiously pedaling nowhere, against no real obstacles or headwinds. The bizarre but effective point of this artificial environment is that it creates the conditions for pure work; nevertheless, while you don’t need balance or quick reflexes for the class, there is a certain technique to it, which good instructors remind us of over and over again. And to my constant surprise, lots of the people who take these classes either just don’t care about the technique, or—my real suspicion—they’re just not capable of learning it.

This drives me crazy.

I used to take any old bike in the studio, but in recent years I’ve found that I have to be in the front row, where I can see the rest of the class in the mirror if I want to look around, but can really just focus on the instructor and my own feet going round and round on the pedals—just so I don’t have to look at the other people in the room, seated awkwardly either too high or low, draping all their weight on the handlebars, riding bow-legged, doing the prancing aerobics move circa 1996 called a standing run, grinding through one pedal stroke after another with an alarming and unattractive pelvic movement, or otherwise flinging themselves awkwardly around the bike—which, as I mentioned, is stationary and has no call for flinging.

I mean, all of this really drives me crazy.

The source of the agitated motion I noticed yesterday was a man lurching back and and forth on his bike, right behind me, where I couldn’t avoid seeing him in the mirror. I tried not to look, but my attention kept being pulled back to what, to me, was awkward, grotesque movement. To the man, I suppose, the movement must have felt…good? natural? I think, in fact, he was carried away with the rhythm of the music—he would lurch back and forth, then his whole upper body would inscribe a circle in one direction for a couple of 8-counts, then revolve in the other direction for another 8, then repeat. He seemed to be having a really good, if strikingly ungainly workout. I was horrified, aghast, repelled.

My automatic thought was—several simultaneous thoughts: What’s wrong with you?? why are you doing that?? why can’t you ride like a normal person?? why can’t you do what the instructor says? why can’t you observe what other exemplary people like me are doing and do likewise? why don’t you know or care that your technique is awful and weird and wrong and you’re not doing it like I am??

And then I thought of these lines from Robert Burns’ poem, “To a Louse”: “O wad some Power the giftie gie us / To see oursels as ithers see us!” (If only some power would give us the gift to see ourselves as ourselves see us!). I was thinking in a satisfied way that these lines represented the situation perfectly: if only that poor ungainly fellow could understand just how freakish he looks, as determined by my indisputable aesthetic and social standards. But, while I may be super-judgey, I’m also a conscientious scholar, so once I got home from the gym, I read the whole poem (below), and realized that I was taking my favorite lines slightly out of context.

The poet’s in church, watching a louse crawl over a fine lady’s bonnet in the pew in front of him. He curses the little creature, and suggests it belongs better in a beggar’s hovel. And yet, the louse, of course, doesn’t care—we’re all the same to it. No matter how we’re able to dress ourselves up, no matter how fancy we might be, we’re all the same, all just bodies—no matter how fine or noble we want to appear, the lowliest vermin knows we’re all just the same, all alike in that decay and death await us all. In other words, the poem’s teasing us all about our silly displays of vanity:
  
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us!
    It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
    An’ foolish notion:
    What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
    An’ ev’n devotion!

(“If only some power would give us the gift to see ourselves as others see us! It would free us from many a blunder, and, foolish notion: we’d be forced to see the falseness of our affectations in dress and manner”)

Huh, I thought. That doesn’t help at all. Instead of helping me make the argument for the importance of not looking ridiculous, Burns is asking me: why does it all matter so much?

Never mind poor ungainly man—because he really seems perfectly content to do his thing on that bike. Why am I so bothered by, and censorious of, his behavior, when it has nothing to do with me, or anyone?

I have always been exhaustively, exhaustedly self-conscious. As a child and teen-ager, I suffered agonies, believing that I looked and acted inexcusably differently than my peers, especially the popular ones: too shy, too many big words, too big, too quiet when I should be loud, too slow, too formal, too weird. Whatever the situation, I always had the feeling that there was some set of rules that everyone else knew, except for me. I was always doing it wrong. So that, if I could gain positive attention for doing something right, then I went after that thing full-on, obsessively, and dogmatically—rarely taking risks, always preferring the most reliable path to praise: school work, household chores, obedience to authority (I was well into university before I realized that you could cut classes and nothing would happen—I really had no idea it could be done). The one exception was fashion and music—in the midst of pastels, Tiffany, and Michael Jackson, I chose New Wave, and neon and lamé, and yards of black fabric and layers of black eyeliner. After all, being a good student would definitely get me adult approval, whereas it didn’t seem to matter whether I wore pink pants or fishnets, because either way I’d be standing alone in a corner at school dances.

In my adult life, I’ve worked hard—self-conscious about my own self-consciousness—to get over a lot of that childhood insecurity. But of course it’s still there (do we ever get over the trauma of summer camp and the rejections of high school dances?), if perhaps in an altered, refined form. Expect me to work my way into a conversation cluster at a cocktail party, and you’ll soon find me standing alone in my safe little corner, edging toward the door—but I’ll knock small children and elderly ladies out of the way for the chance to talk to 100 people in a lecture hall. Keeping people’s attention is a requirement of my job, and, conveniently, when I’m the one making the rules for a captive audience, it’s a lot more fun and less risky than making small talk over mini-quiche and stuffed mushroom caps.

And the obsessiveness with getting attention for things I’ve done well affects a lot of my behavior, to the point that I’ve become downright exhibitionistic in some ways, particularly at the gym. I was fantastically un-athletic when I was younger; but by grad school, I’d become something of a jock—turns out, my once ungainly germanic body is actually pretty strong, flexible, and coordinated. I have excellent form, exemplary technique. I always stand in the front row. Because I paid my ungainly, unfit, ugly-duckling dues for so many painful years, I feel justified in the satisfaction that my athleticism brings me. It has also made me just the slightest bit vain. And, apparently, just the slightest bit judgmental of anyone who does not take his or her vanity as seriously as I do, like the blissfully unself-conscious ungainly man in my cycling class.

And there it is, at the core of my judgement of him—it is not, in fact, that man, or anyone else around me (all of us pedaling frantically to nowhere) that drives me crazy—it’s all my insecurity, my vanity. I don’t know this man at all—not his name, what he does, where he’s from. I don’t know what, if anything, makes him self-conscious, or what his petty vanities are. I also don’t know what makes him happy, or in what ways he brings happiness to the people in his life whom he loves, and who love him. I don’t know him, other than as a provocation for a strong, negative, unfair response. That is, I’m doing exactly what I most fear other people are doing in response to me—judging me, condemning me, rejecting me, without ever knowing me. Self-consciousness, vanity, self-absorption—all our “airs in dress an’ gait” —these are all ingrained defenses that we acquire, to protect ourselves against pain and rejection; and in the process they become the mechanism for hurting and rejecting others.

Of course, the lessons I’m drawing from this experience—about the cost of vanity, the real value of compassion, kindness, and respect for one’s neighbors—aren’t new ones. They’ve been around for quite some time. But I imagine that when Burns watched the louse scale the lady’s bonnet, with no regard for human vanity whatsoever, it might have occurred to him, as it does to me now, that the venerability and familiarity of these lessons tend to make them into abstractions, things that we all know and think we believe, but that we might not actually get in the midst of our relatively comfortable, privileged, self-satisfied lives. In fact, these lessons are—like Burns’ little louse—at once more simple, humble, and immediate than we think; they’re right there in front of us, if we’re ready to see them.

Just paying attention to my own—let’s be honest here—mean response in the last week has made me a little more self-conscious about where that meanness comes from, and in the process, makes me a feel a little more compassionately towards myself, as well as towards a man I don’t even know. Thank you, ungainly cycling man: do whatever it takes to be happy as we all pedal furiously to nowhere—and I’ll try to do the same.

Robert Burns
“To A Louse, On Seeing One On A Lady’s Bonnet, At Church,” 1786

    Ha! whaur ye gaun, ye crowlin ferlie?
    Your impudence protects you sairly;
    I canna say but ye strunt rarely,
    Owre gauze and lace;
    Tho’, faith! I fear ye dine but sparely
    On sic a place.

    Ye ugly, creepin, blastit wonner,
    Detested, shunn’d by saunt an’ sinner,
    How daur ye set your fit upon her-
    Sae fine a lady?
    Gae somewhere else and seek your dinner
    On some poor body.

    Swith! in some beggar’s haffet squattle;
    There ye may creep, and sprawl, and sprattle,
    Wi’ ither kindred, jumping cattle,
    In shoals and nations;
    Whaur horn nor bane ne’er daur unsettle
    Your thick plantations.

    Now haud you there, ye’re out o’ sight,
    Below the fatt’rels, snug and tight;
    Na, faith ye yet! ye’ll no be right,
    Till ye’ve got on it-
    The verra tapmost, tow’rin height
    O’ Miss’ bonnet.

    My sooth! right bauld ye set your nose out,
    As plump an’ grey as ony groset:
    O for some rank, mercurial rozet,
    Or fell, red smeddum,
    I’d gie you sic a hearty dose o’t,
    Wad dress your droddum.

    I wad na been surpris’d to spy
    You on an auld wife’s flainen toy;
    Or aiblins some bit dubbie boy,
    On’s wyliecoat;
    But Miss’ fine Lunardi! fye!
    How daur ye do’t?

    O Jeany, dinna toss your head,
    An’ set your beauties a’ abread!
    Ye little ken what cursed speed
    The blastie’s makin:
    Thae winks an’ finger-ends, I dread,
    Are notice takin.

    O wad some Power the giftie gie us
    To see oursels as ithers see us!
    It wad frae mony a blunder free us,
    An’ foolish notion:
    What airs in dress an’ gait wad lea’e us,
    An’ ev’n devotion!

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