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In Ancient Greece, the philosopher Socrates famously declared that the unexamined life was not worth living. Asked to sum up what all philosophical commandments could be reduced to, he replied: ‘Know yourself.’
“Many of us are wandering the earth, accomplished in many ways, capable of fulfillment at points, but with a fundamental wound that stops us from becoming who we might be: we don’t quite know who we are. It isn’t, of course, that we can’t remember the basics of our biographies. We’re unsure around two things in particular: we don’t have a stable sense of what we are worth, and we don’t have a secure hold on our own values or judgments.”
When we don’t know who we are, every wind of public opinion can sway us in any direction. We will become dependant on others’ validation rather than seeking to be grounded in our inner self-knowledge.
“We’ll be prey to rushing towards whatever idea or activity the crowd happens to love. We will laugh at jokes that aren’t funny, uncritically accept undeserving concepts that are in vogue, and neglect our true talents for easy popular wins. We’ll trail public opinion slavishly, constantly checking the world’s whims rather than consulting an inner barometer in order to know what we should want, feel and value. We need to be kind on ourselves. No one is born with an independent ability to know who they are.”
If we are lucky enough to grow up in a caring environment, others study our identity and reflect back it to us. That’s how we learn who we are and how the world perceives us.
“Realising that we lack a stable identity is a sobering realisation. But we can, with a fair wind, start to correct the problem at any point. We need to seek out the help of a wise and kindly other person, perhaps a good psychotherapist, who can study us closely, mirror us properly and then validate what they see. Through their eyes, we can learn to study, perhaps for the first time, how we really feel and take seriously what we actually want.”
By knowing ourselves, we can learn when to say no, take our own side more often, and be authentic.
“Having come to know ourselves like this, we will be a little less hungry for praise, a little less worried by opposition – and much more original in our thinking. We will have learnt the vital art of both knowing and befriending who we really are.”
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