Socrates said “Know thyself.”
“So, what’s the big deal?” you may ask. “Sure, I know myself. I mean, like, who doesn’t; I’m me, right, me.” Well, sort of.
If I tell you, “Of course I know myself,” chances are pretty good that I don’t. In my experience, being self-aware takes a lot of dead ends, trials and errors, embarrassments and the willingness (or the coercion) to sit still long enough to sort out just who’s who. It’s not a one- time thing. Knowing myself gets dicey since I have this exquisite capacity, as humans do, to deceive myself.
In my opinion to know oneself is a very big deal. It’s the heart of all knowing.
The writer James Joyce took this issue on when he wrote the sentence, “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.”
I read this some years ago in one of Joyce’s short stories. Joyce recognized how much of the time we (and the Dubliners of his day) live as strangers to what we truly feel, think and actually believe. Psychologists describe this as living out of our “idealized self,” –– a self we prefer to claim rather than the self we really are but with whom we’re disconnected.
I’ve been confronted with my “idealized self” several times in my life. One was especially significant. It was associated with my early aspirations as a writer.
Years ago, I submitted my first essay for publication to the Georgia Review, a prestigious literary journal. I realized I was a beginner, but I had high hopes. My desires were driven by the intoxication my own story had awakened in me. I was sure my essay, if it excited me, it surely would do the same for others.
The essay, to put it bluntly, was bad, full of hyperbole and mawkish sentimentality. I shortly received my rejection in a form letter. However, the editor enclosed a hand-written message. He wrote that my tone was too certain, perhaps preachy, and he advised that I might consider being more tentative in my observations, rather than so certain.
I was hurt. I didn’t know what he meant, but only years later did I realize the significance of the rejection.
I know now that his gesture was incredibly kind. It was only when over time I became an editor myself, that I understood how the volume of submissions editors receive is daunting. It leaves little time to write individual responses to any submission. He saw how the piece presented me as someone I wanted to be. At that stage in my life, I was not sure of just who I was and he saw through it. His response was encouraging the best in me by confronting me with my pretentions. It was a form of tough love. He took the time to do it.
My writing slowly evolved. It became a kind of deconstruction: a disassembling of an idealized self and a search for the person I am. Writing also became my way of reaching out to others, inviting others, as they might, to join me while I tried to figure out what was for real and what was not. I worked to write from the person I am rather than the one I imagined I was. I will tell you this: there are days when I don’t like either very much.
The personal essay, the genre I write, is peculiarly suited to this kind of search. American essayist Phillip Lopate put it this way: “The struggle for honesty is central to the personal essay
. . . since humans are incorrigibly self-deceiving.”
How is it that we can we be living “a short distance from our body” and remain totally unaware of it? It is not uncommon. We see it at work in our role as parents. We can be shocked by who we really are. The confrontation occurs when we’re dealing with a difficult child who’s being especially obstreperous. You may have had the experience yourself of saying things or acting in ways your own mother or father had years ago in similar circumstances involving you; you swore to yourself then you’d never say or act in the way they had. “How can this be?” you say to yourself when you do. But there you are, blindsided.
There are some frightening ways in which our lack of self-awareness wreaks havoc.
In the Bible’s timeless story of self-deceptions, King David seduces Bathsheba. He then schemes to have Uriah her husband killed so he may have Bathsheba for his own wife. Nathan, one of David’s advisors tells David a story: there once was a poor man who had a little lamb that he nurtured and loved “like a daughter.” A rich man came along and took it from him. When David hears the story, he becomes enraged at the injustice and proclaims to Nathan that “the man that hath done this thing shall surely die . . . and he shall restore the lamb fourfold because he had no pity.” Nathan confronts David: “You, David, are this man.”
Taking time to know who we are has perks. We’re much less inclined to do stupid things. When we do, we will have a sense of humor about it. We won’t blame others, punish ourselves or be defensive.
Another perk: In the second century, Christian writer Theodotus wrote: “To know yourself at the deepest level is to know God.” He went further: “Learn the sources of your sorrow . . . your joy . . . your love . . . your hate . . . if you carefully investigate these matters, you will find God in yourself.”
It’s the last place we think to look.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.