572. Knowing Thyself

I think it was Socrates who said, “Know thyself.” What a deceptively simple thing for him to say! In some ways, we do start out knowing ourselves. We know what we need: food, comfort, warmth, and company. And those needs start out being a big part of who we are. Everybody else has the hard work of getting to know which we need when. But in other ways, we start out not really knowing diddly about who we are. So Socrates was actually giving us homework that could end up at least keeping us up all night.
As we’re earnestly trying to figure out the parts of ourselves that we don’t know, people whom we quickly grow to trust – our parents, usually – tend to sometimes tell us who we are. And since we trust them, we internalize a lot of their defining statements. Not yet knowing who we are, we believe people who think they know. They often tell us in ways that make them sound as if they really know what they’re talking about. So for the time being, at least, we’re who they say we are.
Then comes a rude awakening. Not for everyone, but for a lot of people. It turns out that we’re not exactly who we were told we were. And since we believed what we were told, we’re not who we thought we were. Identity crisis time. We try to find ourselves, and sometimes it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack. Worse, in fact; we may find some needles, and later discover that they’re the wrong needles – that they’re somebody else’s.
On top of that, a lot of people are changing all the time, so even if they do get to know themselves, they may discover, a little while later, that that’s not who they are any more. So it’s back to the drawing board. Too bad they can’t get frequent flier miles for their journeys of self-discovery.
I know some people have selves that are easy to get to know, and are pretty stable. But many have to struggle like crazy to find out who they are. They ask parents, gurus, clergy, teachers, psychologists, and more. And they get all kinds of answers, including some that contradict each other. Legend has it that adolescence is when most of this is supposed to happen, but you and I know that it happens to different people at different times, and some people spend their lives searching for and never finding themselves.
I try not to tell people who I think they are. I’m getting a reputation for having great insight, and so it’s tempting to try defining people – both the ones who are still searching and the ones who have found answers I don’t immediately agree with. But I think it’s smarter to accept people’s self-definitions. Sometimes those definitions can be accepted with grains of salt, but I don’t find it very useful to tell people that they’re not who they think they are. I’ll try to believe, or at least accept, who they say they are, and concentrate on knowing myself.

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