Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Can One Every Really Know Thyself?

"Know thyself," said the old philosopher, "improve thyself," saith the new. Our great object in time is not to waste our passions and gifts on the things external that we must leave behind, but that we cultivate within us all that we can carry into the eternal progress beyond.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton
English dramatist, novelist, & politician (1803 - 1873)   

What is This 'Thyself,' Pray Tell?
Psychologists call it many things: Our Inner Selves, Our Inner Being, the Inner Landscape, etc. It's the part of our existence that lives with us when we are alone and without distraction.  The part that we may or may not attempt to hide from society; or possibly may not have yet met. This is the part of our existence in which all these self-help books are written for, even the ones that have to do with being outside ourselves.  After all, it is hard to be outside yourself if you aren't really comfortable with what's inside.

Why Does This 'Thyself' Matter?
The self-help industry makes millions of people like me.  People who feel fairly well-adjusted, but have no problems fine tuning their daily living so they are on the top of their game. In my teen years, I realized my potential as an ambitious, overachieving, Type-A personality. I understood early on the distinct bonus of this personality and the drawbacks when it came to dealing with other people.  That's when I began to tweak things, in part because I wanted to function well in this world, but also because I wanted to spare others what has been described as an "authoritarian personality."  Honestly, you know it's bad when a random person looks at you after five minutes of benign conversation and says, "I get the feeling you would make a great dictator."

There's a danger of falling into the perfectionist trap. I definitely have a T-shirt that proclaims Been There, Done That.  And for the most part, I'm pretty confident I have a pretty good map to my Inner Landscape.  Or so I thought. 

I've concluded the United States underestimates the necessity of vacation.  Like everyone else, I thought they were a frivolous breaks from the daily grind, but now I see that there are serious periods of self-reflection underlying all that boating, fishing, drinking, and hanging with friends.  My last outing allowed me to really reflect on two particularly stressful interpersonal relationships and note the tone in my voice when I spoke about them.  At first, I thought I just sounded angry, but realized there was an unfamiliar sharpness I'd never heard before.  Not only that, but what should have been a re-energizing time with friends actually became exhausting; to the point that I cancelled my next trip with family.  For the next five days, I sat at home pondering this ugliness.  Finally, I Googled all the emotions under the sun trying to identify the problem.  Eventually, I did. And of course there was a self-help book for that.  And once again I discovered something new about myself.

Does the Journey for 'Thyself' Even End?
Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.
Sir Winston Churchill
British politician (1874 - 1965)  

Is it ever possible to really "Know Thyself?"  No.  Should this preclude us from trying?  Not a chance. For all that pining for stability, we know deep down that a stagnant world stinks.  Will we boldly go where no one else has gone before?  Guess we won't know until we try.  I do know that it isn't easy, but it's worth it.  After all these years, I would have never pegged this overachieving, Type-A personality to be particularly introverted.  Yes, Little Miss Social Butterfly ME turns out to be a coping Introvert!  At first, it seemed like a pretty useless discovery. But then I noticed my friends' satisfaction knowing my absence from their last gathering had nothing to do with them.  I no longer take it personally that this girl in my office is so harsh with me because I can see my self-awareness terrifies her. And  I accept that this shy man who interacts awkwardly probably needs a gentler approach.  Guess I need a new T-shirt: I'm There, I Do That.

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