My favorite character in Netflix’s Midnight Diner is the food critic who always orders “butter rice.” To be a good critic, you must be critical of yourself; naturally, this can be exhausting. He comes to the diner to escape his own critical gaze. He doesn’t review the diner because he doesn’t want anyone to know about it, and he allows himself to enjoy an infantile dish anyone can make at home.
Most of the regular customers in Midnight Diner are underachievers; the critic is an exception. He is drawn to the place partly because they are nonjudgmental. The diner’s unspoken rule is not to judge anyone regardless of their appearance, profession, or sexual orientation.
Among the regulars are three women in their 30s desperately looking for husbands, an old man who frequents burlesque shows, a gay bartender, two gangsters, and an amateur photographer. Even the “master” is not a great chef. He serves instant ramen, for instance. I had to wonder why these underachievers make lovable characters.
I spent my whole life thinking that the only way to be liked or respected by others is to have skills in demand, expert knowledge, intelligence, or talents. I felt compelled to be good at everything, yet my self-esteem has never improved as a result. These regulars at the diner are loved by the viewers in spite of their mediocre existence.
According to one theory, there is no such thing as self-esteem. It is simply the feeling that people like you. Recognition of your competence doesn’t help improve this feeling, as you can impress others with your performance and still be hated. As a parent, you are better off teaching your children how to get along with others. Telling them “Great job!” only reinforces the idea that to be loved, they have to achieve something. Whether you praise the effort or the result, “like” or “follow,” affirmations only leave them wanting more.
The word “esteem” is derived from the Latin word “aestimare,” “to estimate” worth. The higher you move up in society, the more preoccupied you become with estimating your worth. As they say, “It’s lonely at the top.” As the critic in Midnight Diner discovered, love is to be found at the bottom of society.
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