Self-knowledge is to the wise as eyes are to the race-car driver. As the driver will crash without sight, any ordinary person will eventually crash without self-knowledge.
If it is true that to manage anything well, we must first understand it, it is also true that we need to understand ourselves. If we lack the knowledge to put the gas in the gas tank and the water into the radiator, our car will soon become inoperative. Should not the same be true when it comes to managing our lives!
Many have observed that self-knowledge and self-examination are critical to our lives.
The psychologist, Carl Jung, noted that:
· Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
We might even add to Jung’s observations that we will not be able to understand others, their motivations and actions, until we first understand our own. Consequently, we have to look inward.
This is the message of most world religions. The Book of Proverbs exalts wisdom and self-examination:
· The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out. Many a man proclaims his own steadfast love, but a faithful man who can find? (Proverbs 20:5-6)
Proverbs hints at the main problem of self-knowledge. We really don’t want it. We would rather think thoughts that are comforting like, “I am a wonderful person.”
In “Stillness Speaks,” mystic and New Age Guru, Eckhart Tolle, suggests that wisdom and self-knowledge merely through stillness and self-observation:
· Wisdom comes with the ability to be still. Just look and just listen. No more is needed. Being still, looking, and listening activates the non-conceptual intelligence within you. Let stillness direct your words and actions.
However, it seems that far more is necessary. Many of our pundits have commented on the difficulties of acquiring self-knowledge:
· If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful and we prefer the pleasures of illusion. (The Perennial Philosophy, Aldous Huxley (1894-1963))
· There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one's self. (Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) American statesman, scientist and philosopher)
· Make it thy business to know thyself, which is the most difficult lesson in the world. (Miguel de Cervantes)
· Other men's sins are before our eyes; our own are behind our backs. (Roman philosopher Seneca (4 BC-65))
Why do we run from self-knowledge? It is just overwhelmingly painful:
· Unless we can bear self-mortification, we shall not be able to carry self-examination to the necessary painful lengths. Without humility there can be no illuminating self-knowledge. (“A Study of History,” Arnold Toynbee)
As many point out, true self-knowledge is humbling. However, with this humbling process, there can be no illumination.
As a result, many psychologists have observed that normalcy is self-delusion. One representative study reported:
· “In one study of nearly a million high school seniors, 70 percent said they had “above average leadership skills, but only 2 percent felt their leadership skills were below average.” Another study found that 94 percent of college professors think they do above average work. And in another study, ‘when doctors diagnosed their patients as having pneumonia, predictions made with 88 percent confidence turned out to be right only 20 percent of the time.’” (Abcnews.go.com;; “Self-images Often Erroneously Inflated,” 11/9/05)
There findings are pervasive. In “Positive Illusions,” psychologist Shelley Taylor sums up the evidence:
· “Normal people exaggerate how competent and well liked they are. Depressed people do not. Normal people remember their past behavior with a rosy glow. Depressed people are more even-handed…On virtually every point on which normal people show enhanced self-regard, illusions of control, and unrealistic visions of the future, depressed people fail to show the same biases.” (214)
Perhaps pain isn’t so bad? Perhaps it’s even necessary! Sadly, once the psychological torment passes, these aggressive tumors return. Taylor confesses:
· “When depressed people are no longer depressed, they show the same self-enhancing biases and illusions as non-depressed people.” (p.223)
This demonstrates that these “self-enhancing biases and illusions” are entirely human and serve to explain why we flee from self-knowledge. We are simply addicted to the pleasure of having and inflated self-esteem.
But is this addiction harmful? Taylor and others believe that an inflated self-esteem is necessary to get us going in the morning. But doesn’t this addiction also exact a high price?
Psychologist Roy Baumeister has extensively researched the relationship between high self-esteem and performance:
· For three decades, I and many other psychologists viewed self-esteem as our profession’s Holy Grail: a psychological trait that would soothe most of individuals’ and society’s woes. We thought that high self-esteem would impart not only success, health, happiness, and prosperity to the people who possessed it, but also stronger marriages, higher employment, and greater educational attainment in the communities that supported it. (http://imaginefirestone.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/RethinkingSelf-Esteem.pdf)
- Recently, though, several close analyses of the accumulated research have shaken many psychologists’ faith in self-esteem. My colleagues and I were commissioned to conduct one of these studies by the American Psychological Society, an organization devoted to psychological research. These studies show not only that self-esteem fails to accomplish what we had hoped, but also that it can backfire and contribute to some of the very problems it was thought to thwart. Social sector organizations should therefore reconsider whether they want to dedicate their scarce resources to cultivating self-esteem. In my view, there are other traits, like self-control, that hold much more promise.
An inflated self-esteem is also associated with arrogance, lack of humility, self-righteousness, and also heightened relational problems. How then to break this addiction?
First of all, we need to become aware of the heightened price we are paying for our self-delusions. This can only come through suffering. However, more than suffering is needed. As Taylor had written, once the pain passes, so too does an accurate assessment of ourselves.
I found that facing my weaknesses, inabilities, and failures is so painful that I had to run from them, even after the intervention of five highly recommended psychologists. Instead, it was only through the love, forgiveness, and assurances of Jesus my Savior that I could begin to endure the truth.
People will kill when they are dishonored. This should give us some appreciation of how tenaciously we cling to our honor and high self-regard. Jesus had to show me that there was something better than my distorted self-appraisal. He showed me that I would do far better by living for Him than for myself.
I am still pained to see myself as I truly am. However, He reassures me that it is no longer about me but Him:
· I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
May He always remain first in my life!