As human beings we live with an endless chain of paradoxes. We have a desire to know the world. And yet, the more we learn, the more we are aware of all we don’t know. For each step in the learning process widens our horizons, and allows us a glimpse of something more. Many have found that the most difficult subject to learn is the nature of ourselves.
How well we know the situation in which someone we know is able to give advice and support to others, but is unable to help himself or herself when caught in the same situation. Our view of ourselves is subjective. When we first hear our own recorded voice, we are surprised. ‘Do I sound like that?’ we ask ourselves. And for many, a photograph of themselves can be a strong emotional experience. Some people can’t bear to be photographed… and not because they believe that the camera steals the soul from the individual. Which reminds me of a miniature poster I saw attached to the refrigerator of a dear friend I visited in Berkeley in the 90s. It said: ‘Denial is not a river in Egypt’.
Early in childhood, we begin to see ourselves in a certain image relative to the people around us. As a young student, I enthusiastically adopted the viewpoint that we all have similar potentials, and that our education and environment direct us to the view we have of ourselves. Since then, I have become convinced that genetics have an important part in the forming of the personality, and I now believe that it is a combination of inherent personality characteristics and the early experiences of coming to terms with others, including parents, siblings, and general environment. But as important as these influences are, I also believe in personal choice. That we can work with what we were given, and that exercising this choice, we can find freedom. We know people who seem filled with themselves, positive, and self confident… and others who are painfully shy, and self-effacing. The better we get to know such a person, the more apparent it is that there is no true reason for such an extreme persona.
A good part of the problem is the subjective nature of a person. If we are extremely self critical, a compliment can be interpreted as ridicule. If we are very self confident, a word of criticism may be interpreted as an attack, or as an expression of jealousy on the part of the person who criticized us. Most of us do not reach such extremes. We are somewhere in between. But there is always the danger of losing sight of ourselves. This is the nature of subjectivity. The antidote to that is objectivity; seeing ourselves from outside. Now and then it is necessary to detach ourselves from all the stimuli around us, and study ourselves… our behavior and our thoughts… the vision we have of our own image.
The existentialist thinkers emphasized the present, and saw dwelling on the past or the future, a distraction from reality. It wouldn’t be true to say that the past no longer exists. Much of it does still exist. But it has been integrated into the present, and by becoming aware, as much as possible, of all that has been taken from the past and incorporated in the present, we have a better grasp of our own unique world than when we are relating to separate tidbits of experience and memories isolated in another framework of time. If we had a traumatic experience, for instance, each time we revisit the memory, we are once again shocked and crippled by the experience itself. However, if we were able to see ourselves objectively, including the scar that we carry from the time of the original trauma, we might come to a very different conclusion about the importance of that trauma, and might choose to relate to it differently.
Denial has tremendous power. We can bury ourselves, or invent a false image of ourselves, all for the purpose of avoiding certain truths that we can’t bear to see. We might be conscious of making the same mistake over and over again… and try to stop this errant behavior. Yet our distaste for a certain subject, or a certain memory… our embarrassment or shame… may lead us while our efforts at repair go unresolved. This process, the examination of our own behavior, and looking at ourselves as others see us, is called ‘soul searching’. We are searching for the true individual behind the defenses, the excuses, and the persona with which we negotiate inter personal relations with others.