Know Thyself


“I do not know myself yet, so it seems a ridiculous waste of my time to be investigating other, irrelevant matters.”  —Socrates stated on the subject of studying Mythology and other trivial matters.

“Know thyself?” we say in response to this Socrates quote. “I know myself. I know myself better than anyone I’ve ever met. Why would I waste my time trying to understand myself better, when it’s the world around me that makes no sense? Trying to know thyself better, to the level the Ancient Greeks and Socrates speak of, seems to me nothing more than a selfish conceit for pointy-headed intellectuals with too much time on their hands.”

Philosophers say that the key to living the good life can be found in reflection and examination. If an individual does not have a full grasp on their strengths and weaknesses, the changes that a person makes will either be pointless, or they might not be able to sustain them for long. Knowing is half the battle, to quote the cliché.

coordinate2One of the measures that we might use to gain a better understanding of who we are is to understand how weird, strange, and different we are, in conjunction with the resultant feelings superiority and inferiority that derive from it, can provide us some relief from the confusion we feel about the world around us. If we were to use the Cartesian coordinate system, we studied in our high school Algebra class, we might be able to locate where we are compared to point of origin, or the point of total normalcy on one axis, versus our 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 might be the most common method we use to know ourselves better.

We’ve all met those strange individuals that tend to be more organic by nature, and we know we’re not that. Through comparative analysis, we could say that those people exist five increments to the right of the point of normalcy on (‘X’) axis of the Cartesian coordinate system, yet we know that we’re not all that normal either. We know that no one that knows us would place us on the point or origin in this particular Cartesian coordinate system, in other words, because we’ve had experiences with people that are more normal than we are. Who are normal people, and being normal, weird, and strange is so relative that it’s impossible to quantify. Fair enough, but if we are going to make an attempt to know a little bit more about ourselves, we might want to compare ourselves to those around us in a simple system that compares us to those that exude a confidence in their being that allows them to be more comfortable in their own skin than other people. These people could be said to be radiating self-possession.

If the majority of people we run into are more normal than we are, by our arbitrary definition of the two terms, we might define ourselves as a two on the weird to normal (‘X’) axis. If that’s the case, where would we be on superiority versus inferiority (‘Y’) axis? We can guess that our point on the (‘X’) axis would have a corresponding effect, and that we would also be a two on (‘Y’) axis if the relationship between being more normal leads to greater self-esteem, and thus a feeling of more superiority. Through comparative analysis we could say, with some confidence, that we are a (2,2) coordinate compared to the rest of the normal, well-adjusted world.

The next question, for those plotting points in their ledger, is what aspect of your personality should you be more focused on? The answer is there is no solution, if you operate from the unstated assumption that your “2=2” comparative findings will reveal a true solution.

The true solution to all that plagues you do not lie in comparative analysis. So, everyone can put their ledgers down. It is pointless. The true solution lies just outside plotting points, and inside a person’s individual Cartesian coordinate system. The true solution lies just beyond the analysis the reader has performed while reading this. It is inside some of the questions a person asks while plotting, and in some of the answers they arrive at. Ask more questions, in other words, and a person will arrive at more answers. The point plotter may never find the perfect question that leads to the truth of it all, but they’ll find some answers, to some dilemmas that plague them, until they have more answers than most.

Philosophers, bothered by the pesky complaints of philosophy fans wanting them to be more direct in their philosophies, believed that they were granted a gift in the form of a maxim delivered by the Ancient Greeks to the world. Among the many things the Ancient Greeks offered the world was a simple inscription found at the forecourt of the Ancient Greek’s Temple of Apollo at Delphi, and reported to the world by a writer named Pausanias.

It was what modern day philosophers might call the ancient philosophers’ “Holy Stuff!” moment, and what a previous generation would call a “Eureka!” moment, and to all philosophers since, the foundation for all philosophical thought. For modern readers, the discovery may appear vague, and it was, but it was vague in a comprehensive manner from which philosophy would be built. It was a discovery that provided the student of philosophy a Rosetta Stone for the human mind and human involvement, and it was accomplished in two simple words:

“Know Thyself.”            

Perhaps a modern translation, or update, of the Ancient Greek maxim know thyself is needed. Perhaps, ‘keep track of yourself’ might be a better interpretation for those modern readers blessed, or cursed, with so many modern distractions, that keep track of who they really are has become much more difficult.

Although it could be said that man has found the investigation of other, more “irrelevant matters” far more entertaining for as long as man has been on earth, but few would argue that we have more distractions, from this central argument, than we have right now. It’s now easier than it’s ever been to lose track of who are, who we really are.

The Holy Grail for those that produce images on movie screens, TV screens, and mobile devices is to produce characters that an audience can identify with so thoroughly that the viewers begin relate to them. The path to this Holy Grail is littered with idyllic images that a consumer may begin to associate with so often, that they begin to incorporate them into their personality. On a conscious level, we know that these images are fictional in nature, but they may exhibit characteristics so admirable that we may begin to mimic them when among our peers. A moment of truth eventually arrives when a person finds that they’re having some difficulty drawing a line of distinction between the subconscious incorporation of all of these fictional characteristics and the realization that they are not us, and we are not them, and we don’t know how to handle a moment of personal crisis when it arrives.

When our moment of personal crisis arrives, we may project a screen image version of us into reality, and that version we have of ourselves might know how to handle this crisis better than we ever will. This image may not be us, in the truest sense, but a future “us”, a different “us”, or an idyllic image of “us” that handled this matter so much better, but we can’t remember how, now that we’re being called upon to handle a crisis.

We may have been a swashbuckling hero –in one episode in our lives– that encountered a similar problem and dealt with it in a heroic fashion. We may have encountered a verbal assault on our character –in another episode– and we may have been a cynical, sardonic wit that countered a damaging insult with that perfect comeback that laid our verbal assaulter out, but we can’t remember how we did it, because it wasn’t us doing it, it wasn’t really us. On some level, we may even know that it wasn’t us, but we’ve incorporated so many 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 that is capable of handling any situation that arises. These adjustments may be false interpretations of how we handled that confrontation, but we preferred our rewrite over the reality of what happened. We then began erecting that rewrite so often, or with such thoroughness, that we convinced ourselves that we handled the matter a lot better than we actually did in order to create that ideal image that we needed for better mental health.

We have all had moments in life where we felt the need to correct a peer on the specific manner in which an event our lives happened, because we overheard them tell a third party a version of that story that was incorrect. When they don’t believe us, we invite others into the argument to provide overwhelming corroborating evidence for this peer. Those of us that have done this have been shocked when our peer refused to believe the true account. At that point, we walk away from them, because we recognize that they’re delusional. Some part of us knows that our peer knows the truth, but they choose to view things different? We think less of these people from a distance, a distance that suggests that we’ve achieved a plane of honesty that they could never achieve? The only other alternative, we think, is that our peer had a need to colorize their role, in some way, for greater self-esteem? After thoroughly condemning this person, we experience a similar scenario. The difference in this scenario is that the roles are reversed. It’s happened to the best of us. Those of us that strive for honesty in our everyday walks of life.

Esteem can be found in the fourth layer of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow states that this need for greater self-esteem, this need to be respected, valued, and accepted by others is vital to one’s sense of fulfillment. If esteem is this vital to our psychological makeup, what happens when one is confronted by the fact that they are not as capable of achieving as their peers? If we are able to convince ourselves that these incidents are the exception to the rule, we might be able to find excuses for why another succeeds where we fail, but when it’s repeated over and over, with peer after peer, we start to get frustrated, confused, and we might even find ourselves growing depressed. To avoid falling down this spiral, we develop defense mechanisms.

If these defense mechanisms involve nothing more than harmless delusions and illusions, say mental health experts, it can be quite healthy. The alternative, they say, occurs when one becomes too steeped in their reality, and that may result in depression, or other forms of regressed mental health. If that’s true, where is the dividing line between using healthy delusions and being delusional?

If an individual achieves what they hope to achieve from delusional thinking, and an incorporation of idyllic images begins to foster their desired perception in an effort to thwart depression, and they get away with it, what’s to stop them from using those mental tools so often that they’re rewarded with even greater esteem among their peers, and greater self-esteem? Why would they choose to moderate future delusions? What’s to stop this delusional thinker from continuing down these delusional paths, until the subject begins lose track of who they are … who they really are?

Most of the research on the brain is dedicated to the organ’s miraculous power to remember, but recent science is finding that the power to forget is just as fundamental to happiness and greater mental health. This thesis suggests that the brain may distill horrific memories and bad choices out, for greater mental health, in a manner similar to the ways in which the liver distills impurities out for greater physical health.

If this is true, it could be said that our lying peers might have remembered their embarrassing incidents differently in a biological attempt aimed at achieving greater mental health. Were they lying? Yes. Was there goal to deceive everyone around that they were a lot better than they actually are, perhaps, but it is just as likely that they were seeking to deceive themselves into the idyllic image that they needed to create for greater mental health. To take this theory to its natural conclusion, one could also say that those that need intense counseling may have decided to go down these delusional paths so often –blocking out embarrassing details and forgetting self-esteem crushing decisions along the way, and replacing them with idyllic images and positive reinforcements– that the person has spent so much time in their bright and shiny forest of positive illusions and delusions, with their idyllic images, screen and otherwise, that they now need a professional to take them by the hand and guide them to a truth that they’ve hidden so far back in the forest of the mind that they can no longer find it without assistance.

It is for these reasons that greater brains than ours have suggested that the path to greater knowledge, a better life, happiness, and more self-esteem exists somewhere on the path of knowing thyself better, and that most of the time spent investigating other, irrelevant matters is a waste of time, or superfluous minutiae for people with too much time on their hands.

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