Can we ever know ourselves? And what is there to know?
I was led back to this old, old topic by a recent blog post from Ron Pavellas – “You don’t know me”. It is well worth reading. If we do not or can not know ourselves, how could we hope to truly know another?
Perhaps Ron’s most telling lines are these:
There are things I carry with me that no one has ever or will ever know about: guilts from having done wrong to a person or to my own sense of propriety and integrity; pains of embarrassment from having done foolish or thoughtless things, even if no one was aware; having been found ignorant of something generally known; having harbored evil thoughts, even if they were not acted upon.
I hear you and I know that I feel likewise. I may not wish to spell these things out or to recount them in public but in private, and particularly in more recent years, I have come to recognize and to exorcise these feelings and acknowledgements. And to silently and privately regret and apologies for past thoughts and actions (or indeed inactions).
So yes, I do think it is possible to know ourselves if we are honest and reflective enough. A fellow blogger writes under the banner Self Aware Patterns and regardless of what consciousness actually turns out to be, I feel this description applies rather well to me.
I do seem to be a series of patterns. We do seem to be a series of patterns. Those patterns repeat and that seems to be what makes “me” or my personality.
I am led to think of patterns of human behavior with greater force than usual thanks to my practice of tinkering with algorithms. As Ron himself said, my algorithms are my motorcycle as in “Zen and the Art of……” I am seeking patterns in stock market data which may indicate that a stock is about to behave in a certain fashion. Repeating patterns which indicate that another specific pattern is likely to follow. Wish me luck!
My own repeating patterns will have become familiar to my bored readers (as well as to myself). I drone on about the same sort of stuff – I am habitually inclined to turn to music, mysticism, nature, silence and meditation. And to drone on about those subjects as an entry point to long sought after peace.
I am aware that I also try and break out of these patterns from time to time in search of the new and the restorative. This in itself is also a “pattern” of my behavior.
So yes, I believe we can know ourselves given enough thought and self awareness. And honesty. Owning up to one’s less attractive patterns as well as laying claim to some better ones.
What is there to know? That is something I find rather more difficult to answer.
Observing and acknowledging our patterns, our behavior is one thing. And a very valuable one if we seek change.
But we are all (or most of us) also obsessed with the uneasy suspicion that there is more we need or want or should discover. It is difficult indeed to accept the scientists’ view that we are chemical scum, evolutionary accidents, pimples on the bum of this rocky little outcrop.
And so again, it is to patterns we turn in seeking answers. Complex ideas or theories which appear to have some explanatory power. And we most of us tend to turn to those patterns which give us most comfort and accord to how we would like the universe to be. Rather than face a reality in which we are or may be a complete irrelevance.
Self Aware Patterns continually seeks answers to the nature of consciousness and prefers a materialistic explanation. I do the same but inevitably end up preferring something less bleak – panpscychism for instance.
I seek reason and purpose where none may exist. Or perhaps it does exist and the arid, sterile dogma of materialistic determinism may prove to be categorically wrong.
In any event, my point rests. It is clear to me what sort of person I am. It is equally clear to me that there is far more that I feel a need to know. You can know yourself it seems, but knowing the nature of reality is a far greater challenge.
Thanks for the link and plug!
I think we can know ourselves, at certain levels. For example, at my age, I can generally predict which kinds of activities, shows, or people I will enjoy, and which I won’t, although I’m amazed that after five decades, I can still often be surprised.
But at another level, our access to our own psychology is limited. We may know, for instance, that we’re liberal, conservative, devout, or skeptical, but our ability to know why we are those things is limited, loss in a welter of evolution and formative experiences we no longer remember. And our limited understanding of the mind complicates the picture. (Although science knows more in this area than it’s often credited with.)
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There are a number of ways one might reasonably approach acquiring knowledge of self, and chief among them are introspection, acquiring life experience, contemplation of one’s inner life periodically, and acknowledgement of ones talents and shortcomings. Gaining life experience over a period of time can often be one of the best ways we can truly discover knowledge about ourselves, as when we are faced with challenges or difficulties to overcome. How we respond to dangers and every variety of human experience can be informative in a way that psychological evaluation might not be, but engaging in both methods from time to time can be instructive.
What can be most challenging is acknowledging what we don’t yet know, or what we have avoided acknowledging for some reason. Many of our psychological defense mechanisms are applied unconsciously in stressful situations, and unless we are curious enough or introspective enough, at some point, averting our eyes and thoughts can prevent true progress.
I have found the regular attention to reflecting and writing about my experiences and thoughts in a journal to be particularly useful in accumulating an increased awareness of what’s going on inside me, and reviewing such writing, even years later, can provide insights that might otherwise have escaped notice. Seeing the entries, written by my own hand, make it impossible to avoid or ignore what they reveal, especially when they are about important aspects of my experience.
In Act Three, Scene Two of Shakespeare’s play, “Henry VIII,” Cardinal Wolsey responds to Cromwell’s question, “How does your Grace?” in this way:
“Why, well. Never truly so happy, my good Cromwell. I know myself now, and I feel within me a peace above all earthly dignities, a still and quiet conscience…I am able now, methinks, out of a fortitude of soul I feel, to endure more miseries and greater far than my weak-hearted enemies dare offer.”
Here’s hoping that your own efforts might also bestow a “still and quiet conscience,” at some point, and that you will be able to fend off any miseries out of a “fortitude of soul!”
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I am who I am. I just know ‘who’ that really is. It keeps changing every day and throughout each day.