How Can We Learn to Know Ourselves?

Ideal Real“How can we learn to know ourselves? Never by reflection, but by action. Try to do your duty and you will soon find out what you are. But what is your duty? The demands of each day” (Goethe).

“Try to do your duty and you will soon find out what you are.” Well, you don’t get more existential than that.

Goethe here reflects a long tradition of philosophical insight – stemming from Socrates to Kierkegaard – by calling his readers to know themselves, not by mere intellectual reflection, but by taking note of their own actions in their day-to-day lives.

This is an insight with deep Scriptural roots as well. The Apostle Paul calls his readers to “Examine yourselves to see if you are in the faith; test yourselves” (2Cor 13:5). Paul here refers to the life lived in God which is evidenced by the power of God, active in a believer’s life. In essence, if one’s life lacks the evidence of the power of God, regardless of what one might think he believes about God, it is clear that he is not in the faith, and without faith one is not saved.

The true self is revealed not by what one claims to believe, but by what one actually does. One’s spiritual-ethical life (if it can be expressed as such) is mere imagination if it is not located within one’s active radius of life, “fleshed out,” visible for him and the whole world to see. And this is the great challenge of life—of finding meaning in life—for each of us. One can hardly claim to find meaning in life when one’s own self is still locked in mystery.

But, presented here in a nutshell, in a ‘thought-bomb,’ Goethe reminds me of volumes of teaching I have gained from the great saints and fathers of the Christian faith: the hope that my true self need not be a mystery; that my true self is a discovery as close at hand as my own capacity for honest self-appraisal, ever-accessible by simple attentiveness to my actions in daily life.

But why, if it’s as easy as taking account of my actions, is it so difficult to carry out this self-awareness? And why is this lack of awareness so prevalent, not only in the world at large, but among Christians by the scores? I can’t speak for everyone, but after a bit of self-inspection I can admit my own hang up – I’m terrified! Terrified of what I may actually find if I stop long enough to take honest inventory of my life and hold it to the standard penned by St. Paul. What if I believe all the right things but my life is contradictory to those beliefs? What will I think of myself if it is revealed by such a test that I am the sort of person whom I seek to help personally and professionally? What if I’m the sufferer who needs the help I claim to be able to give others? Worse yet, what if after all this learning, after all this striving, I myself have become “disqualified” as Paul, again, puts it: “I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to other I myself should be disqualified” (1Cor 9:27). There it is again—the Scriptural emphasis on the relationship between the spiritual and the physical; on the ideal with the real.

Thankfully, the Father is always standing in the doorway awaiting the return of the “prodigal son.” But no return is possible until the courage to face one’s own true state is ventured.

As a new father, an armchair theologian, and counselor in training these are becoming important issues in my life. I don’t want my children, my wife, my friends, and my clients receiving a fake me—a me existing in my imagination, but in reality a fraud.

Just some thoughts on this Friday afternoon.


11 thoughts on “How Can We Learn to Know Ourselves?

  1. The standard to reach for is to love God and our fellow men including any we see as our enemies. We cannot hold ourselves up to this unless we understand the proper meaning of perfect love. I wonder how much we fail at this before we even begin to act and reflect on our failings in an attempt to do better next time!

    • Very true, and its the act of loving which is a tell tell sign of whether or not our love is real. Love without action is nothing. To love God and neighbor is indeed the highest aim, and it is precisely that which is most difficult to appropriate when self is getting in the way.

    • Agreed. We cannot help but act. I often wonder if some act with love without the need to think about it, but then Jesus surely explained for our benefit. So, I think the very fact that someone cares to aim for the standard is good. No matter what ‘talents’ we have, the aim is to increase them. The prodigal son was originally not interested. I think it is likely that your fears are unfounded, in that we are all learning, we can only try our best, weigh up any complaints, and if we fail, we must look to God for forgiveness and leave the rest to the others own state. It may be a temptation for ego to worry about being a shining example.
      Congratulations on being a new father. I’m sure you’ll do your best and can only hope your children recognise it.

    • But, being fake is so easy, especially because for the most part it goes unnoticed. This is why this line from Goethe and the related Scriptures are so interesting to me. I think nearly everyone, if they stop long enough to do a true self-assessment, will tremble at who they really are in comparison to the vision they have of themselves. For me the task is full “congruence,” meaning that I want my inner world and my outer world to be the same, without contradiction. I see this as the epitome of the healthy and whole person. Christ certainly was/is this person.

  2. Goethe says try to meet the demands of each day and you will know what you are. Surely, this is only achieved if we are honest with ourselves when we hold our action up to the true light. Our honesty will no doubt be relative to our will to do right. Perhaps God alone can be the judge of this?

    • It’s a good question, I hadn’t thought of it from that angle. I guess I trust that God has given us the ability to gain insight in this way using our own powers of observations, else I can’t imagine why Scripture would instruct a man to examine himself.

  3. I’m sure we are meant to apply ourselves to gain insight on which to build. I wonder how many of us will ever have so much demanded of us as to give up our lives for another, even our aggressor. But God would surely know if we were capable of this, even if we never get tested to discover it for ourself. Having said that, how many of us are any better than the soldier who asked what more could he do, and failed when told to give up all that he had?
    I thought about your comment that for the most part faking goes unnoticed. The consequences may go unnoticed and any connection with ourselves may also, but the more a principle of truth, honesty, fairness ecetera are imbedded in our minds, don’t you think any faking is not only recognised soon, if not immediately, by ourselves, and made all the harder to perpetrate?
    In your Orthodox beliefs, do we only get the one life?

    • “Faking” is interesting. Sure, we do it consciously at times but often it is simply part of the coping mechanism we create throughout our lives; mental filters and constructs that allow us to “cope” with life rather than face the pain and suffering that honesty will force us into. If the mental filter is too refined its a pathology and/or neurosis. For the regular person self-honesty is still a triumph over oneself in the highest degree. Self-awareness to the degree that one can catch himself in the self-deception ‘in-the-moment’ is a rare person indeed. I believe it would only be hard to perpetrate when one is aware of the destruction he causes himself with such faking. But, as it is, the faking is a coping mechanism which has the subtle effect of being a solution to a problem – sort of how alcohol convinces the alcoholic that it is a friend rather than THE enemy.

      For the Orthodox Christian, yes, this is our one life. If given the chance to live multiple lives, one would not change his ways, since who he is in this life is a projection of who he would be given 1000 lifetimes.

  4. That’s strange. Your last comment did not reach my e-mail but i had three of the previous one!
    You have puzzled me – you say it’s hard to fake when you know the consequences, but, surely as a Christian you do know?
    Also, too refined makes a pathology and/or neurosis – yet we cannot serve two masters, so I believe we must be on our toes all the time, strive for full integrity, but must learn to forgive ourselves if we have failed. This prevents illness and helps us to forgive others. So, where exactly your concern is I am not sure. We can try our best but perfection is an almighty task!

    • Yes, but simply being a Christian does not mean I have instant access to every part of my being and able to monitor my every thought and intention. There are parts of me that I am well aware of and other parts yet to be fully discovered and confronted. Take, for example, a habitual attitude or thought pattern one might develop in life as a coping mechanism. This attitude/thought pattern can go under one’s radar for a lifetime without deep, honest self-examination. This is why Paul tells us to examine ourselves and not take it for granted that we are living the life in the Spirit. My main point with this article is that a short-cut to knowing oneself better is to do just as Paul says, to examine our actual actions in the world. Our actions and our thoughts often do not match.

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