When I started writing articles and submitting them to papers and magazines, I thought of it as a distraction, just a hobby really, nothing too serious. Then I received a phone call from a guy in London. He said that he had read my articles on Expat Exchange and elsewhere and would I like to write an article for his paper. 'What's your paper?' I said. 'The Guardian,' he replied. Well, I swallowed hard and, my heart thumping in my chest, I said as casually as I could muster, 'Sure, I'd love to.' And that was that. I wrote a piece on the social and ecological effects of expatriates settling in Granada Province that went down a storm. The letters page was inundated with comments – some for, some against. All great stuff. The voice on the line from London said, 'How'd you like to do a piece on the Twenty-First Century counter-culture in Andalucia?' 'Sure, I'd love to,' I replied, much more naturally this time. And that led to a call from Ivan who is now my agent operating on both sides of the Atlantic and, in fact, world-wide. 'The New York Times needs a piece on how the hippy experience of 1967 is being relived in Beneficio', he said. 'Sure, I'd love to…'
It's a great thing about writing that you can write anything you like and it doesn't have to be in any way true. None of the above is. It's merely a fantasy of mine and I have written it to illustrate a point. When we are honest with ourselves, we can see that we have fantasies like this all day long – you might call them delusions of grandeur or insignificance. Luckily for us people don't have to know about them and normally, since most of us live within the boundaries of a fairly pedestrian and routine life, they may serve as innocent enough flights of fantasy which balance the humdrum mundaneness of ordinary existence. We might daydream about being rich, attractive, powerful, talented or someone else. Alternatively we might fantasize about being an outcast, a victim, clumsy, ugly or one of life's losers. The former are fantasies of inflation, the latter fantasies of deflation. People seesaw between self-inflation and self-deflation, between arrogant conceit and vulnerable pathos, feeling big or small, capable or incapable, confident or blubbering. And we succumb to these inner images of ourselves. What's wrong with that, you say? Well, what's wrong with it is that, since we are neither the inflated nor the deflated person who inhabits our every thought, we are never who we really are. Dangerous, even tragic, though this is, it is not as terrible as the punch line, which is that seesawing between the two positions we can miss out on life altogether.
At least some of you may be old enough to have been brought up in the age of rock'n'roll. So you may remember the great Bo Diddley. Diddley was a fantastic example of what I am talking about. Bo had the demeanor of a well-meaning older brother. Slightly chubby with thick horn-rimmed glasses, he didn't cut a particularly striking figure. But when he strapped on his guitar, like some comic-book superhero, he transformed into something that was truly amazing and brought literal meaning to the words of one of his rock'n'roll classics, You Can't Judge a Book by Looking at the Cover. He possessed the flagrant audacity to call not only one of his songs after himself but he went on to use his name in a number of his songs in an unparalleled odyssey of brazen self-celebration. The eponymous song in question, Bo Diddley, was followed up by Hey! Bo Diddley, The Story of Bo Diddley, Bo Meets the Monster, Diddley Daddy and so forth. His self-celebratory egofest seems to have been infectious (in more ways than one) because a member of his backing band, the maracas-playing Jerome, who I had long suspected of harboring a deep-seated desire for his fair share of the limelight, penned a song called Bring it to Jerome, which celebrated on a Diddley B-side Jerome's acquisition fixation. Diddley himself possessed a fabulous swagger and a unique rectangular guitar on which he scraped out the chords to his songs, while his backing group chanted Hey Bo Diddley! in a kind of irreligious incantation.
But Bo redeemed himself and saved us from thinking of him as a complete ego maniac by offering us the chance to identify with his hubris, while at the same time revealing his vulnerable side. Whereas other rock'n'rollers would throw in macho asides like, 'Aa'm a-comin' to get ya!' and 'Get down!' Bo would punctuate his verses with the spoken aside, 'How'm I doin'? He actually seemed to want to know and you sensed that he wasn't all that certain of himself in spite of his great talents. This transparent vulnerability has always warmed me to Bo, as it warms me to other people who are courageous enough to let on that, in spite of their apparent confidence, they are not all that certain of themselves either.
In my teenage years I was not very certain of myself at all. I was blessed with big ears and became the focus of a lot of ribbing in my school days for it. Sellotaping them back at night had little effect, but as I grew older they became more streamlined and I can honestly say that they now look fairly inoffensive. However they have retained a certain hypersensitivity and wandering past the street cafes of Andalucia it is amazing what they can pick up. 'The Moroccan mahogany for the kitchen units has been held up and we can't move in until it's done', 'The cement lorries turned back when the road was washed away last week and we don't know when they can get to us again' and 'The plumbing was all finished but nothing was coming out of the taps, then we found a snake in the main pipe' for example. Hardly remarks you would hear in cafes in England or Berlin or Paris. When we expatriates move here, it seems we often have unusually good opportunities for self-inflation. Whereas in the UK, for example, our aspirations may be for a better job, a newer car or more money from the benefit system, here people want to build their dream holiday home, create a utopian community, open an international healing centre or realize their ideals in some other way. In Andalucia we have the opportunity to recreate ourselves in an image of our own liking. But there the problem starts. Recreating ourselves is alright so long as what we are making of ourselves is right for us. What is right for us is appropriate and within the range of our talents and abilities. The life we create for ourselves needs to fit us – certainly better than the one we have rejected and what we need is not always what we want. Strolling by the cafes you will pick up gems of people's triumphs and setbacks, which are often caused by the friction of needs and wants rubbing together.
Caught between our hollow confidence behind the need to appear to know what we're doing and our crippling anxiety about what's going to go wrong next, we may squeeze ourselves out of existence. When we meet someone in the plaza who asks us how it's going, we may not really be present (in any case how much time have they got?) so we fall into either the puffed up or the collapsed facades, rather than who we really are. It was the psychologist Carl Jung who pointed out that our authentic self was situated somewhere between ego inflation and energetic collapse. It may be healthy to be ambitious and to have inspirational goals which motivate us to strive. But not everyone will be successful and when we fail it should be nothing we have to feel ashamed about.
But self-inflation is based on an unreal sense of our abilities. Self-inflation needs to be distinguished from self-confidence, which is altogether different. Genuine self-confidence is borne of an authentic sense of ourselves and our abilities, strengths and weaknesses. When it is not, it is false and it leads to self-inflation. The trouble with self-inflation is that it depends on our rejection of ourselves. After all, if we are good enough as we are, then we wouldn't need to be different. The other trouble with self-inflation is that, like an overblown balloon, it cannot last very long. We are bound to breathe out and deflate because the tension can only last for so long. Inflated and deflated people are hiding something, something they don't want you to know about them. It is the belief that they are not good enough. But they are.
But you are unlikely to find out because another effect of self-inflation is that it keeps people away. People have a fairly good nose for bigheads – boasters, braggers and know-it-alls. And they are not much fun to be with, because the relationship is lop-sided and unfulfilling.
No, uncertainty and vulnerability win out in relationship. We are far more attracted to a person who is less sure of themselves, because they are more human. Flaws and imperfections are often charming and they even add to our character. Paradoxically then, the parts of us we conceal can be our greatest asset in building friendships.
So in those moments when you are tempted to self-inflate (or self-deflate), try and remember that you are fine as you are. People will like you the better for it and, if you reject yourself, then you are not really present to participate in your life…. it's an impostor doing it for you.
When he graced the stage at the Seville Guitar Legends concert several years back, Bo Diddley was a little older, a bit plumper and the cowboy hat surely concealed a little thinning up top. But he had lost none of his old panache. The band started up and the singers chanted the magic mantra, Hey Bo Diddley! just like they did in the fifties and sixties. Bo swaggered to the front of the stage and a few verses in he looked out into the audience and uttered the magic words that had made him my friend: 'How'm I doin?'