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Original Issue

Song of Ourselves

According to the packaging, my waffles want me to friend them. My oatmeal has asked me to follow it. And my English muffins now want a relationship, pining for me to them on Facebook. All of which can leave the average American breakfast eater feeling like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate: "Mrs. Butterworth, you're trying to seduce me."

When our meals are this forward, what does it say about us? We are what we eat—hungry to be loved, starved for attention, at once insecure and ill with the most modern of maladies: high self-esteem.

There was a time when our most famous professional athletes were all of the above, cartoonishly immodest men like Muhammad Ali, Reggie Jackson, Evel Knievel, Brian Bosworth, Jose Canseco and Terrell Owens. We could look at them with equal parts horror and wonder as they celebrated themselves, indulging in operatic end zone pranks, endless home run trots and other auto-accolades, among them Rickey Henderson's memorable tribute to Rickey Henderson after the former (and the latter) broke the record for career steals: "Today, I am the greatest of all time."

But in the last several years, a remarkable turnaround has taken place. Our most prominent athletes have become models of modesty: Tom Brady, Kevin Durant, Derek Jeter, Lionel Messi and Mariano Rivera are all humble men outwardly unimpressed with—sometimes seemingly unaware of—their own considerable achievements.

Meanwhile, something like the opposite has happened to the rest of us. We've switched postures with the stars, Freaky Friday--style, leaving many of us begging to be noticed like a five-year-old on a bicycle shouting, "Look at me!" Friend Me, Follow Me, Like Me. Like me like I'm Sally Field at the Oscars. Really, really like me.

Above all, Notice Me. Notice the eight-year-old girl in the grocery store in the neon Nike kiss my sass shirt. Notice the growing portfolio of selfies on everybody's phones. (From Aaron Hernandez to the Boston Marathon bomber, people conveniently take their own mugshots in advance of their arrests.) Notice everyone who has ever used the phrase "rise and grind" to emphasize what a hard worker he or she is.

Unless you're employed as a barista, optician or pole dancer, you're not really rising and grinding. You're merely going to work, like every human being in history before you.

If all this sounds like an old man's get-off-my-lawn rant, it is. And we haven't even gotten to the guy on the lawn yet. That would be the 18-year-old bro who ran onto the field during the MLB All-Star Game last week. He did so after pledging on Twitter to invade the diamond if and only if he got 1,000 retweets.

Thus he wasn't simply running onto the field for a few seconds of negative affirmation before the inevitable clotheslining he got from security, he was also—in that ubiquitous phrase used to justify any naked grab for publicity—building his brand.

It was a perfect distillation: An anonymous pinhead running across the pristine All-Star outfield shortly before the best players in baseball made a point to stay off that same field, yielding the spotlight instead to Rivera, whose own humility we profess to admire while declining to emulate.

Of course humility has been turned on its head, so that when many of us profess to be humbled—"I'm humbled to announce that I've just received the Millard R. Fillmore Humanitas Award"—we mean exactly the opposite. The neologism humblebrag was coined to call out this practice.

As society demands new words for these new phenomena, these new phenomena redefine our old words, making us feel better about ourselves. And so swagger is used as a compliment on every other sports broadcast. Merriam-Webster still defines it as "conduct[ing] oneself in an arrogant or superciliously pompous manner." But what does the dictionary know about language?

It's always dangerous to judge another man until you've swaggered a mile in his shoes. But we still want wide receivers to hand the ball to the referee after scoring, even while we Lambeau Leap on social media after every workplace promotion or new sale or, yes, story we've posted online. There, we don't merely go fishing for praise with the wide net of commercial fishermen; we repost any praise we haul in, seeking approval for the approval we've received.

It turns out all those years we spent ridiculing self-promoting athletes—going all the way back to the first athlete who ever Hi-Mommed a camera—we didn't have smaller egos than they did. We just had smaller platforms for expressing those egos.

Of course, this is laughable coming from a superciliously pompous columnist writing in the first person beneath his own mugshot. When it comes to self-absorption, the love child of SpongeBob SquarePants and the Brawny paper towel guy has nothing on your "humble" correspondent.

But at least I'm trying to evolve and to bear in mind the words of C.S. Lewis, who wrote, "Humility is not thinking less of yourself. It's thinking of yourself less."

Please don't forget that. And don't forget to follow me on Twitter.

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