Old Irish was meeting me for coffee after my monthly appointment at the barber shop. Joining him at the table where he'd set up camp I plopped my messenger bag down and pulled out my phone. I held it at arm's length and slightly upwards, looking up at it and smiling, tapping the camera button several times, taking a series of shots in rapid succession.
Old Irish: You take a lot of selfies.
I looked at my phone to judge the results. Finding them all wanting, I deleted this batch and repeated the process, taking several more and then reviewing them as well. There was one good one I liked, so I deleted the others and put my phone back in my bag.
Mr. SponsorPants: Do I? I guess... yes, I suppose I do. But this haircut looks pretty cool.
Old Irish: You know it's a Program about getting LESS self obsessed.
Mr. SponsorPants: Well, actually, it's a Program about finding a power greater than yourself -- but I take your point.
Old Irish: I thought you hated Facebook because you think it fosters envy and narcissism.
Mr. SponsorPants: I do.
Old Irish: So how, exactly, is taking a lot of selfies of yourself not a facet of narcissism? I hate how people are taking pictures of everything now. I go to a restaurant and there's some boob sitting there taking pictures of their food and I guess posting it online or something. I went to the grocery store the other day and someone was taking a picture of themselves in front of a pastry display! And you... why do you take so many selfies, anyway? You used to hate having your picture taken.
Mr. SponsorPants: Oh, hey, look. There are some kids over there. Why don't you go over and yell at them to get off your lawn.
Old Irish: Very funny. But you didn't answer my question.
Mr. SponsorPants: Nor am I required to, my dear friend. But I will. I take a lot of selfies because I am in an ongoing process of recovering from many years of self loathing.
Old Irish: Self loathing is just...
I help up my hand.
Mr. SponsorPants: I know. I know. Self loathing is just another facet of self obsession. True. Certainly very true in my case. I have no argument there. But knowing that I need to focus on the "self" part by addressing self obsession does not equal leaving the "loathing" part completely unaddressed.
Old Irish: I feel compelled to point out -- compelled, mind you, otherwise I would sit quietly and enjoy the day -- that you often yap about how service -- in your case, a fair amount of service -- was how the loathing part got addressed.
This was tender territory between us. Old Irish and I go waaaay back. He is a good fellow and a great friend and in my humble opinion works a terrific AA Program. But over the years very few people have asked him to be their sponsor, and once he confessed to me that it made him feel "less than" -- he wondered what was wrong with him that no one "wanted what he had to offer." Once he shared this with me I toned down talking with him about my challenges as a sponsor, as one of them was finding a balance between sponsoring a good number of people at any given time and also taking care of myself and my life. It was a balance I found through trial and error -- sometimes I think more error than trial, actually -- but though he and I are quite happy to spar a little the friendship goes deep and I would never want to make him feel bad around this issue. He has been of prodigious service in other ways (organizing AA conventions, fundraisers, volunteering at and eventually serving on the board of his local Alano Club) -- which is a perfectly legitimate way to get out of yourself and thus get much the same benefit as you might get from sponsoring people. And he has found a way to address the issue between us through a little lighthearted teasing, which is how we usually address things anyway.
Old Irish: In fact, God apparently knew just how very, very, very sick you were, and had to send you alllll those people to sponsor because it took that massive amount of ballast to pull you out of self obsession. Or try to, anyway.
Mr. SponsorPants: One "yap" and three "very's?" Really?
Old Irish: I call 'em like I see 'em.
Mr. SponsorPants: Look, I read this really interesting essay online by a...
Old Irish: Ohhh God. Okay, HERE we go.
He put his head in his hands in mock despair.
Mr. SponsorPants: Shut up. I read this really interesting essay about how people who are struggling with self loathing often find that part of it has to do with how they look. Or rather, how they think they look. Perception and all that. And of course any discussion along these lines is then judged as vanity. So then there is shaming and minimizing and the discussion is shut down... and sometimes... and... well, I don't remember it all exactly, but the point was that to shift that negative perception try taking a bunch of selfies till you find one you like -- and then continue doing that as a way to sort of take control of your mental picture of yourself. The essay was more eloquent -- made it sound more substantive, I guess.
Old Irish: That sounds like bullshit. No, let me correct that -- it sounds like a massive and ridiculous justification for self indulgence and taking pictures of yourself a lot which goes back to my original question about feeding narcissism!
I lauged a little bit.
Mr. SponsorPants: Ummm, you sound a little angry about this.
Old Irish: I'm not angry!
I gave him a Look -- any of you would have done the same, given the exclamation point at the end of that statement. He caught himself and, abashed, said it again, this time sans exclamation.
Old Irish: I'm not angry.
Mr. SponsorPants: Okay. The bottom line is that it makes me feel a little better about myself, in an area where for years I felt pretty bad. Is it superficial? Maybe. Who says I don't need to work on healing some of my superficial things too?
Old Irish: You remember that old Kevin Costner movie? "Dances With Wolves?" Well, if you had been a member of that Native American tribe I think your name would have been 'Dances With Rationalizations.'
I laughed really hard.
Mr. SponsorPants: Okay, that was really good. And my spirit animal would have been... a cup of coffee.
Now he laughed.
Mr. SponsorPants: And your name would have been...
I stopped myself. I was about to say 'Stands With a Scowl' but felt like it would have been mean-funny instead of tease-funny. It had begun to feel like there was a teeny bit of raw nerve on his part being exposed in this conversation.
Old Irish: Would have been what?
Mr. SposorPants: I got nothin' -- can't top yours.
He did a little mock fist pump in the air.
Old Irish: Yes!
Mr. SponsorPants: You may be right. Maybe I'm getting a little carried away with the selfie thing. I'll genuinely think about that. But also, I can't deny it hasn't helped change how I feel about myself in an area which used to be really toxic. I mean yes, you're right, I used to hate having my picture taken. Now it's not that big a deal - which is kind of an interesting shift, really. This selfie thing has helped maybe. Some. Or a little, anyway. Even if it is in a semi-superficial way. But now I feel compelled to say -- compelled, mind you, or I would just sit here and enjoy the day too -- that it strikes me as a bit of black and white thinking, maybe a little bit rigid, closed minded or extreme, to equate an exercise designed to address any kind of self loathing with... something negative.
Old Irish: Did you just call me rigid, closed minded and extreme?
Mr. SponsorPants: Not on purpose. It was more of a drive-by.
Old Irish: Hmph.
Mr. SponsorPants: It's like my smiling in the mirror thing.
Old Irish: You smile at the mirror?
Mr. SponsorPants: No, I smile at myself IN the mirror.
Old Irish: Oh my god, that sounds...
I help up my hand again.
Mr. SponsorPants: Stop right there! You've used up your allotted quota of being snarky towards...
Old Irish: I was not being snarky!
Mr. SponsorPants: You were going to say it sounds stupid or something.
Old Irish: Welllll... maybe.
Mr. SponsorPants: Of course it sounds stupid. And shallow. And is easy to make fun of. And it FEELS stupid at first, too. But never mind that there is science behind it...
Old Irish: Oh, please.
Mr. SponsorPants: No, there is. Something about endorphins but I don't want to get into it with you. You should try it though.
Old Irish: I'm not going to stand and look at myself in the bathroom mirror and grin like an idiot.
Mr. SponsorPants: What's that AA thing about contempt prior to... what was it again?
Old Irish: Shut up.
Mr. SponsorPants: Seriously. Why don't you try it? For thirty days. Take a full minute and just smile at yourself in the mirror in the morning.
Old Irish: A minute.
Mr. SponsorPants: Yeah, why not. What if you... oh my god! What if you ACTUALLY GOT SOMETHING OUT OF IT?
Old Irish: Shut up.
Mr. SponsorPants: Do as you choose. You always do.
I hoped I had planted a seed. The conversation had taken an unexpected turn, and I felt like we had, without realizing it, swum out into deeper waters than we realized -- it was as if, emotionally, I stretched my foot out to touch the bottom beneath us and found nothing.
Lots of the things I do... starting with going to meetings all those years ago... sound stupid or foolish. Or even selfish. I have found, as I've continued to peel the proverbial onion and get down to some of my nittier gritty, that I needed to be careful not to label things that were about my self care as something selfish or self obsessive. I also found that I needed to be careful not to label things that were selfish and self obsessive as self care. DAMN. Tricky business. That's pretty much why I need the good sober friendship of people like Old Irish in my life to challenge me on occasion, and meetings to give me a place to hear others' experience, and service to provide that all important ballast.
Is it ridiculous and frivolous for a man in his early fifties to even care how they look? Very likely. Does it feel like a healthy thing for me to explore? Yeah, surprisingly it does. Have I learned that there are all kinds of ways I need to -- and can -- heal as I stay sober over the years? Absolutely.
There are more essays like this in "Mr. SponsorPants: Adventures in Sobriety and The 12 Steps for AA's and Others." Available as an eBook on Kindle via Amazon. Download the Kindle reader app for free on any device or platform, from PC to Smartphone.