“I do not know myself yet, so it seems a ridiculous waste of my time to be investigating other, irrelevant matters,” —Socrates, on the subject of studying mythology and other trivial concerns.
“Know thyself?” we ask. “I know myself. In fact, I know myself better than anyone else does. Why would I waste my time trying to understand myself better when other people are the ones who make no sense? I have no problem with me, and this idea of trying to know thyself better, to the level the ancient Greeks and Socrates suggest, seems to be nothing more than a selfish conceit for pointy-headed intellectuals with too much time on their hands.”
Philosophers suggest that the key to living the good life lies in reflection and self-examination. If an individual does not have a full grasp of their strengths and weaknesses, any changes they make for the better might be pointless or unsustainable.
One of the measures some use to gain a better understanding of themselves is through comparative analysis. They use others to understand how weird, strange, and different they are, and they derive feelings of superiority and inferiority in the process. This analysis also provides some relief when they examine themselves against the freaks, creeps, and geeks. “At least I’m not that,” they declare.
Using the Cartesian coordinate system we studied in high school algebra might help us locate where we are compared to the point of origin, referred to here as the point of absolute normalcy, on one axis, versus our resultant superiority and inferiority on the other, to form a (0,0) for example, on the (X,Y) axis. This may be an inexact science, but comparative analysis is the most common method we use to know ourselves better.
We’ve all met strange individuals who tend to be strange in a more organic manner, and we know we’re not that. Through comparative analysis, we might say that the strangest person we meet exists five increments to the left of the point of normalcy on X axis of the Cartesian coordinate system, if being strange is a negative. Yet we know, because people have told us that we are not the type anyone would place on the point of origin, our arbitrary definition of absolute normal.
The first question those of us who seek truth through comparative analysis should ask is if we have a model for absolute normalcy. The second question regards the numerous ideas we all have about being normal, weird, and strange. Most consider these relative concepts nearly impossible to quantify, but I’m sure they would have an argument against defining us as the barometer by which all people striving for normalcy should be measured. Normal might be one of the most relative concepts there is, for we all define it internally and compare the rest of the world to our definition of it. How normal are we, and how normal is the most normal person we know?
If we prize normalcy, we might argue that for all of our eccentricities, we are quite normal. We might admit that a majority of people we run into are more normal than we are, but we also consider them just as boring. If we are able to admit that, we’re admitting that we are a two on the weird-to-normal axis. We can guess that our point on the X axis would have a corresponding effect on the Y axis if being normal has a corresponding relationship to self-esteem and the subsequent feelings of superiority. Through comparative analysis we could say, with some confidence, that we are a (2,2) coordinate, as compared to the rest of the normal, well-adjusted world.
When plotting points in our personal ledger, most people don’t view themselves honestly, and that makes it difficult to compare ourselves to others. Too often, we instinctually eliminate the negative in our quest to accentuate the positive. Thus, if we are the ones introducing the variables to this equation, there will always be contradictions, and these contradictions lead to the answer no solution.
The true solution to all that plagues us does not lie in comparative analysis, so everyone can put their pencils down. These ledgers are pointless. The solution to knowing more about oneself lies just inside the analysis we perform when deciding our comparative plotting points to form our Cartesian coordinate points. Most of us will not arrive at a definitive answer, but if the questions we ask ourselves lead to other questions we were on the correct road to final analysis through self-reflection. Ask more questions, in other words, and the subject of the interrogation is destined to provide their interrogator more answers. The point plotter might never find the perfect question that leads to a truth of it all, but questions lead to answers, and answers provide other questions, ultimately providing more answers than most that never ask them receive.
The great philosophers spent a lifetime asking questions of themselves and their followers, yet many in the audience considered their inquiries too general. Bothered by these complaints, some believed the ancient Greeks granted them a gift in the form of a maxim. One of the many things, the ancient Greeks offered was a simple inscription on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, reported to the world by Pausanias.
This gift was what modern-day philosophers might call the ancient philosophers’ “Holy stuff!” moment, and what a previous generation would call a “Eureka!” moment. To all philosophers since, it has become the foundation for all philosophical thought. For modern readers, the discovery may appear as vague as it has always been, but it is a comprehensive sort of vague that helped construct the science of philosophy. This simple, complex discovery was a Rosetta Stone for the human mind, human nature, and human involvement, and the ancient Greeks achieved it with two simple words, “Know thyself.”
Perhaps a modern translation or update of the ancient Greek maxim is necessary. Perhaps, today, we should say, “Keep track of yourself,” as that might be a better interpretation for those modern readers who are blessed or cursed with the many modern distractions that render such a task more difficult.
Although it could be said that mankind has found the investigation of other, more irrelevant matters far more entertaining for as long as we have occupied Earth, few would argue that we have more distractions from the central argument of knowing thyself than we have right now. Today, it is easier than ever before to lose track of who we are, who we really are.
The Holy Grail for those who produce images for our numerous screens is to create characters the audience can identify with so well that we relate to them. Another goal is to create characters that we not only relate to but we attempt to emulate. Idyllic images litter this path to the Holy Grail, and we associate with them so often that we begin to incorporate the characters’ idealism into our personality. On a conscious level, we know they are fictional characters, yet they exhibit such admirable characteristics that we attempt to mimic them when we are among our peers. Somewhere along the path, who we really are can get lost in the shuffle.
A decisive moment eventually arrives when we find that we’re having difficulty drawing a line of distinction between the subconscious incorporation of these fictional characteristics and the realization that we are not those characters and vice versa. This decisive moment is often one of crisis, and it can lead an identity crisis, because we always thought that when a moment of crisis arrived we would be able to handle it much better than we did.
When this identity crisis occurs, we might initially project an idyllic screen image version of us into reality. That version knows how to handle this crisis better than we ever will. Yet, it is not us, in the truest sense, but a different us, some fictional image we have created of us that handles pressure so much better. The trouble is, now that the reality of a real-world crisis stands before us, we cannot remember how that character that we resonated with did it.
In one distant memory, we were a swashbuckling hero who encountered a similar problem and dealt with it in a more heroic fashion. We might have encountered a verbal assault on our character in another distant, foggy episode, which we remember countering with a cynical, sardonic comeback that laid out our verbal assaulter. We cannot recall the specifics of these moments, now that really need them, because we weren’t really doing them. On some level, we recognize that we’ve been fooling ourselves, but we’ve incorporated so many idyllic images of so many characters handling so many situations with such adept fluidity that we’ve incorporated those idyllic screen images into our image of ourselves.
Another idyllic image occurs over time, in our interactions with peers. These images may be nothing more than a false dot matrix of carefully constructed, tiny mental adjustments made over time to deal with situational crises that have threatened to lessen our self-esteem, until we became the refined, sculpted specimen now capable of handling any situation that arises. These adjustments may be false interpretations of how we actually handled those previous confrontations, but we’ve preferred our rewrites for so long that they somehow became part of a narrative that we now believe.
We have all experienced moments in which we felt the need to correct a peer on the specific details of a past event, because their retelling of it to a third party is incorrect. When they don’t believe us, we invite others into the argument to augment it with overwhelming corroborating evidence. We are shocked when our peer refuses to acknowledge their error, even in the face of the corroborated account. At that point, we fear our peer must be delusional, and the only sane thing to do is walk away.
If we know them well, and we know they’re not delusional in general, we assume that they must be purposefully lying about the incident, spinning it to make themselves look better. We assume they need to colorize their role in it to boost their reputation and self-esteem. We think less of these confused, delusional, or lying individuals from a distance, and that distance suggests to us that we’ve achieved a place of honesty they never could.
After thoroughly condemning them, we encounter a similar scenario, only with the roles reversed. We won’t see it this way, of course, as a significant amount of time will pass between our confrontation and theirs, but my guess is most who confront the delusional experience someone who seeks to show us we have similar holes in our memory. It can be an eye-opening experience for those of us who strive for objective honesty, if we are able to see it for what it is.
Lurking in the fourth layer of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we find esteem. Maslow states, and I paraphrase, this need for greater self-esteem, this need for respect, value, and acceptance by others is vital to one’s sense of fulfillment. If esteem is so vital to our psychological makeup, what happens when one of our peers succeed where we fail? If we are able to convince ourselves that these successes are an exception to the rule, we find an excuse, but when others achieve that success in the same vein and the repetition is such that we can no longer find a suitable excuse for our lack thereof, frustration and confusion sets in. We might even find ourselves sinking into depression. To avoid falling further down this spiral, we develop defense mechanisms.
Mental health experts say that if these defense mechanisms are nothing more than harmless delusions and illusions, they can actually be quite healthy. The alternative occurs when the reality of these repeated situations begins to overwhelm us. This can result in clinical depression or other forms of regressed mental health. If this is true, where is the dividing line between using delusions for greater mental health and becoming delusional?
If an individual attains what they seek from delusional thoughts and they get away these delusions in the court of public opinion, what’s to stop them from using those tools so often that they’re rewarded with a better perception among their peers, along with greater self-esteem? Why would they choose to moderate future delusions? What’s to stop the delusional thinker from continuing down their delusional paths, until they begin to lose track of who they are, who they really are?
Most historical research dedicated to the brain focuses on its miraculous power to remember, but some recent articles suggest that the power to forget and misremember seminal moments is just as fundamental to happiness and greater mental health. The thesis suggests that the brain distills horrific memories and horrible choices, and it eliminates them for the sake of better mental health, in a manner similar to how the liver distills impurities out for better physical health.
Thus, we could say our delusional peers might be actually recalling the incidents differently as an unconscious attempt to improve their mental health. Their account of what happened may not be true, but did they create it to deceive us? We don’t know the answer to that and each situation calls for independent analysis, but experience with such matters and extensive reading on the subject has led me to believe they may just be deceiving themselves onto an idyllic path, the one they need for better mental health. To take this theory to its natural conclusion, one could also say those in need of professional counseling may have opted for the bright and shiny delusional paths too often. They might have subconsciously omitted embarrassing details from their memory and forget some of the self-esteem-crushing decisions they made along the way. Some may have filled those gaps with the actions or words of their favorite scripted responses or actions from screen actors. By replacing and redefining the embarrassing details and self-esteem-destroying decisions with idyllic images and positive reinforcements, they’ve spent a little too much time in those bright, shiny forests of positive illusions and delusions. The power of these idyllic images have become so ingrained that they now need a professional to take them by the hand and guide them back to the truth that they’ve hidden so far back in the forest of their mind that they can no longer find it without assistance.
That therapist attempts to express what amounts to teaching the client how to know thyself better. They assist the client in attempting to rid their mind of the accumulation of illusions and delusions that the client used to create a sense of superiority. They attempt to remove the dot matrix, idyllic images used to forestall mental health issues, as well as the need for excuses for why they failed when others succeeded. To remove these subjective views, the therapist asks their client questions the client should’ve been asking themselves all along, to help them achieve some form of personal clarity.
Some of us are better able to keep track of ourselves, to gain personal clarity as we age and as a result of experiences, but clarity cannot occur without extensive reflection, and Abraham Maslow suggested that 2 percent of the people in the world reflect enough to achieve self-actualization. The comprehensive term personal clarity is not necessarily moral clarity, but without guiding principles, it is impossible to achieve it. Clarity serves as subtext for morality and vice versa.
Of course, no human being can achieve absolute clarity, as we are all unsure of ourselves in various moments and we are insecure by nature. Nevertheless, some submit the red herring argument that because absolute clarity is nearly impossible to achieve, it is pointless to strive for it. They also submit that because there are no absolutes, they don’t understand why anyone would attempt to achieve clarity on any matter. I submit that reliance on anecdotal arguments invites the confusion that inhibits progress toward clarity, and that their argument that a thoughtful person always focuses on anecdotal arguments permits them to avoid trying to achieve a level of clarity.
The final hurdle in achieving clarity by knowing thyself arrives when we recognize that too much comparative analysis intrudes upon introspection, as seen in the Cartesian coordinate system exercise above. There’s nothing wrong with comparing oneself to others, of course, as it helps us clarify our progress and learn more about our identity. Too much comparative analysis might distract us from who we really are, in some cases, as we attempt to assimilate their characteristics into our own, and it can dilute the acute focus we need to jump through the hoops involved in knowing thyself better, however, it becomes counterproductive.
It is for these reasons that greater minds than ours have suggested that the path to greater knowledge, a better life, happiness, and more self-esteem exists somewhere on the path to knowing thyself better. They also suggest that too often, we spend too much time investigating superfluous minutiae. It’s a waste of time, they say, for people with too much time on their hands.