Thursday, December 30, 2010

A Candid Reflection on Myself

Know thyself, in ancient Greek
I'm going to venture out into a little more personal territory tonight.  I'm feeling emotional, and I want to capture some thoughts.  Please bear with me.

Most people have come across the maxim "know thyself" at some point in their life.  The saying was inscribed in the pronaos (forecourt) of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (pictured left), and it is probably one of the most important, sagely bits of information ever spelled out for humankind.  Afterall, what more helpful piece of information can there be than to understand your place in the world, how you fit, who you are, who others are in relation to you, what enlivens you to the world around you, what feeds your passions and snares your hopes; simply stated, what makes you who you are?

In the end, I cannot think of another more insightful charge than to get to know myself.  By doing so, I wonder how much of who I am would change?  I mean, part of knowing who you are is knowing who you're not, and then being brave enough to jettison those falsities.  Nevertheless -- and I'm certainly not the only one who does this -- I hold on to what I know is false about myself; I hold on to who I'm not.  And the end result of such a morbid practice is manifold: I don't get to know myself truly, others are forced to look past the veneer I unintentionally present them with, my values become blurred, and I act in ways that are disingenuous.

So why would I, and all the others who undertake to obscure themselves from themselves, do such a thing?

First, I think that it is partly unintentional.  There isn't a soul alive who isn't conditioned by their experiences along the way to adulthood.  No-one lives in a vacuum.  And because we are all influenced by the contexts under which we experience life, we are forced to endure many untruths that we unwittingly take on.  For example, a person growing up in a well-meaning family may experience a lot of sarcastic humour from their parents.  While this in itself is not intended for bad, the long-term side-effect of sarcasm may be that a person develops a pattern of self-demeaning.  That is, when he achieves something, or recognise something about himself,  he may automatically and unintentionally detract from his accomplishment by telling himself things like, "you could've done better," or "why didn't I do this sooner?" or "I've seen better."

The sarcasm of the well-meaning family helped condition a negative response in a family member who, for all intents and purposes, means to treat himself respectfully and kindly.  Nevertheless, the wholeness and intimate awareness of that person's actual selfhood is obscured by a needless and detrimental tendency to self-demean.  Such a person, while he may know himself quite well is, sadly, not in possession of his full selfhood.

Shame-based identity
Second, I think people obscure themselves from themselves because they are afraid they may end up disliking who they actually are.  That is, people are afraid of who they may actually be so they go to great lengths to hide behind preferred projections of who they'd like to be. 

I'll use myself as an example: when I was roughly 12 years old, I had enough self-awareness to understand that I constantly felt ashamed of myself.  To protect myself from the growing depression my sense of shame was engendering, I pictured myself as a strong, handsome, nigh omni-capable man bent on battling the forces of evil and preserving precious antiquities for the rest of the world.  And if you read between the lines of that last description, yes, I fancied myself a budding Indiana Jones.  I even went so far as to steal my uncle's cream-coloured leather gloves, and convince my grandmother to purchase a genuine fedora at the Stetson warehouse near where we lived.  In order to save myself from myself, I pretended to be someone else.

I didn't like me because I wasn't capable of seeing myself soberly.  What I saw when I looked into myself (usually at night when I was alone in the dark of my room) was a scared, disappointed, hurt, and lonely person.  I saw the negative remarks I heard around me, and the resulting shame I thought I should feel for being dissatisfactory to others.  I wasn't a carpenter like the rest of the men in my family, and I wasn't a regimented and orderly engineer-type like I thought my mother's family was.  I was too different to be acceptable, therefore I didn't accept myself, and that resulted in a shame-based identity.  And that shame came out in fear-based searches for an identity that modelled who I'd like to be, ideally: Indiana Jones.  I didn't like me, but I really liked Indiana Jones.

All these years later, however, I still haven't completely shed the shame-based identity of that little boy.  I still haven't been able to make a coherent picture of who I actually am.  The difference now is that I'm eager to know myself because, at bottom, I really have no other recourse than to come face-to-face with myself if I want to actually live, if I want to be a genuine person, if I want to embrace the moral complusion that "Know thyself" implies on a person to be fearlessly real.

Who I am
I am not Indiana Jones.  I am not a carpenter like the men in my family.  Being twenty-four years in advance of my 12 year-old perceptions, I have come to understand that I am not a regimented and orderly engineer-type like I thought my mother's family was, and neither are they!  Still, who I am is a little murky to me at this point.  A lot has happened in my life to muddy the waters, as it were, which makes self-reflection that much more difficult again.  But mud settles, and ripples eventually steady, and what should be left, if I am patient enough to wait and see, is a loveable, enjoyable, and whole person staring back at me; a person I can call 'me'.

1 comment:

Skeptigirl said...

I agree. I have had to let go of the perceptions I have had. My perception what I should be was too lofty and I struggled between the desire to be a "good person" and failing to be that I felt like a "bad person" now I realize that very few people are truly good or bad and most fall in the middle, like me. Now I have to find different and more fine tuned adjectives if I want to label myself. Age and maturity brings self acceptance if nothing else of worth.