Look At Me

Friday, 01 April 2011 17:20

The Guardian Monday 9 September  2002
Would you be willing to humiliate yourself on national TV like the has-beens on the celebrity survivor show that reached its climax last night? Or queue for hours for the chance of being slated by a panel of Popstars judges? Or would you let your privacy be invaded, as in Big Brother, by millions of prying, critical eyes? "Never!" you'd probably reply, "I don't crave that kind of attention." But few of us realise that those who seek fame in these seemingly abhorrent ways are no different from the rest of us.

We all need to be noticed, and this need is as important to us as is air, food and water. We each have our own way of getting noticed but, whatever ways we use, it is imperative that other people acknowledge our existence. Air, food and water keep us alive physically, but even more important than that is our survival as a person - what we call I, me, myself. Faced with a situation where there is a conflict between surviving physically and surviving as a person, most of us choose to let our body go. If we don't make this choice, if we go against ourselves, we suffer. We might plunge into a burning building to save a child because we think of ourselves as someone who cares about children. If we survive and someone commends us for our bravery, we say: "If I hadn't done that I couldn't have lived with myself." 

We need to be the person we know ourselves to be, and we need to have other people acknowledge this. Not to have such acknowledgment is extremely painful, even to the point where we feel that we shall disappear. It will be as if we never existed. We find this utterly terrifying. It is a fear we knew only too well as children when adults ignored, belittled and humiliated us, treated us as objects to be used and abused. Loving parents cannot always protect their children from such experiences at the hands of teachers, other adults and older children, and so every child grows up with the fear of being annihilated as a person. Our every action and decision is to some degree a defence against this annihilation. 

All of us have ways of getting ourselves noticed. If we're lucky we do well at school, get good jobs and our work is praised and has lasting beneficial consequences. If we're unlucky, we have to find other means of being noticed. If the teachers ignore you when you're good, you get their attention by being bad. Such attention might be painful, but the teachers do learn your name. Appearing on television, however briefly, can give you status in your own community. If such means fail and you feel totally alone and ignored, acquire an enemy. The blessing of paranoia is that someone, somewhere is thinking of you. 

Some people don't mind who notices them, just as long as they are noticed, while other people have definite preferences. It might be the people that we admire, or the people who could advance our career, because such people not only confirm our existence but they enhance it by showing us that we're admirable. Or our passion for recognition might be directed at our peer group, or the parents who never gave us the attention we needed when we were children. Most of us grow up with fantasies of "showing them" - of becoming rich and famous and of returning home to confound our childhood critics. 

No doubt one of the reasons for the success of the website Friends Reunited was the desire to gain the acknowledgment from peers that was denied in school. All that some people long for is that their parent will acknowledge them by saying, "I love you, I value you." The absence of such parental acknowledgment can be the loss that precipitates a person into depression. 

The less we value and accept ourselves, the more intensely we need to be noticed. The more we value and accept ourselves, the less we need to draw attention to ourselves. We can tell ourselves that anybody who doesn't like us is a fool, and we have no time for fools. However, the fear of being annihilated as a person is never far away. Be ignored by a waiter, be treated with disdain by airline staff, be patronised by junior doctors, be regarded by relatives or friends as a doormat or just a body to fill an empty chair at a social function, and the fear resurfaces, usually as anger fuelled by pride, with: "How dare they do that to me!" 

This fear makes us vulnerable, and so we never talk about it. But we actually acknowledge it in our interactions with one another. There is an unspoken pact: "I will notice you as long as you notice me." 

This pact is the basis of what we regard as good manners. It is implicit in the relationship between a lecturer and his audience, a writer and her readers, politicians and their constituents, and everybody in the media and the general population. The millions watching Popstars and Big Brother are not just acknowledging the participants' existence but hoping that one day the roles will be reversed and the participants will acknowledge them. 
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