To know or not to know ourselves?
As much as understanding ourselves enables us to understand others, understanding others also enables us to understand ourselves. This is a law of nature that works both ways. Sometimes, the characteristics in others that we find fault with are a direct reflection of our own flaws. There is a song that was sung by the American rock band The Velvet Underground and Nico called “I’ll Be Your Mirror”. And in a way, even though this song pertains to a relationship between two people, it represents a simple truth about the world and those around us.
Through our words and actions, we reflect to others not merely knowledge of ourselves but also knowledge of them. There is no fundamental division between you and me . . . and everyone else . . . not in the deepest sense. Yes, we each have our own journey to take. We are all unique and remarkable individuals.
But at the same time, we are also part of collective humanity. This has been the case since the beginning of time. And it has been during those periods of history when people completely overlooked that they were all bound to one another that our world has sometimes appeared to be destroying itself.
What you do to another, you do to yourself, whether it be good or bad. Even if it seems that you not suffering the consequences of causing pain to someone else, you are, at the very least, corrupting the essence of your spirit. If we can all stop seeing things as being “me, you, and them”, perhaps we can start comprehending the connection amongst ourselves, someone else, and everyone. Then we will find that rather than it being a constant struggle to cling to the principles that we say we believe in, they will become part of our daily existence.
To cling to a code of ethics that is no more than learned dogma will only give you a false sense of security. In self-deceit, we convince ourselves that we are better, wiser, more decent than we truly are. Then, when we discover ourselves having what we term a “lapse of judgment”, we stand back in wonderment and think, “How can this be?”
It is because the knowledge that is absorbed into our minds does not become knowledge that is contained within our hearts until we cease to do what is “good” simply because it is “good” and do what is “good” because we clearly understand that we will hurt ourselves and others if we don’t. The reason that cruelty has become so prevalent in this world is all rooted in our effort to isolate ourselves from the rest of humanity. We are so eager to be looked upon as unique beings that a part of us believes we can make our own rules as to how we lead our lives.
It is often in mere thoughtlessness and selfishness that cruelty has its beginning. We want what we want when we want it—even at the expense of other people’s feelings. And then, because we feel remorse, we manage to shift the blame for our actions onto them.
Yet, to live in complete freedom, we cannot allow ourselves to blame others for that which is our fault. For, in doing so, we are being dishonest to ourselves. Personal freedom demands self-honesty. It is contingent upon detaching ourselves from a cycle of self-deception and understanding that, as unconscionable as it may be to deceive others, to deceive ourselves is even worse.
Ultimately, we don’t need Freud or Jung to open our eyes to what would be ostensibly apparent if we simply took the time to carefully examine our inner selves. We like to use the trite phrase “the truth will set you free”. Yet we do everything we can to hide from the truth.
We may even be inclined to deceive ourselves into believing that we cannot know our true natures. But this is only more deception aimed at enabling us to justify and excuse whatever we do by imagining that we had no idea we were capable of doing that which we did. This does not imply that we thoroughly “know” ourselves, but only that we know ourselves more than we say or think that we do.
Society encourages us to aim for inconsistency in our habits, choices, and actions, by convincing us that this is the only way to fully “enjoy” life—to be open-minded enough to be adventurous and to not worry about the consequences of our “adventures” until later. We are discouraged from creating a structured set of principles and beliefs. And when we do establish our belief system, it is oftentimes suggested that we have simply “adopted” the views of others or that our views are a result of our upbringing.
This careless approach to holding fast to our principles—this encouragement towards living “in the moment” with no thought of the future—is nothing more than a ruse that cheats us out of having genuine contentment in our lives. What is called “non-conformity” is actually conformity wearing an opaque mask. We believe ourselves to be liberated and inhibited when we have actually trapped ourselves in prisons of our own creation.
While it is indeed pride to see ourselves as above the moral law and therefore entitled to do as we please, it is nevertheless not humility to allow ourselves to be conformed to the mold that society has set aside for us. As Thomas Merton says, “How do you expect to arrive at the end of your own journey if you take the road to another man’s city? How do you expect to reach your own perfection by leading somebody else’s life?”
It takes what Merton calls “heroic humility” to be both yourself and also to understand that you are connected to everyone else. And, to borrow a passage from my favorite of all his works, New Seeds of Contemplation: “. . . the greatest humility can be learned from the anguish of keeping your balance in such a position—[that is], of continuing to be yourself without getting tough about it and without asserting your false self against the false selves of other people.”
When we allow ourselves to remain deceived by our false selves, we are also bringing about that which is not authentic in others. This is what Merton means by asserting our “false self” against the “false selves” of other people. We may think that if others are playing a role that we must as well. But doing so will only continue the chaos and pain that comes from living life as if it is a theatre production instead of an authentic experience.
It is a bit of a paradox that a playwright like William Shakespeare, whose life revolved so heavily around the theatre (and, therefore, that which is false), is the person who wrote these words: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Why then, do we imagine that we cannot at least, to a certain extent, know ourselves? For how it is that we can be true to that which we do not know?
Perhaps, it is easier to convince ourselves that the risk of knowing ourselves is beyond our grasp than to take the time and effort to uncover the innermost recesses of our being. After all, we have been conditioned by society to be in a rush and to want everything now. Thus, we measure the effort involved against what we perceive to be the benefits. But at what risk to our true selves? Is it not the ultimate form of self-betrayal?
Find me at twitter: http://twitter.com/saschanorris
Write me by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
This page and all written material at My Odyssey is written by Sascha Norris. (C) 2010 by Sascha Norris. All Rights Reserved