Without a sense of self, it’s very hard to work out what to do with your life, or how to do it. Self knowledge is necessary for personal growth and for any kind of meaningful spiritual life. How do I hold a mirror up to my soul? How do I establish what kind of person I am? How do I discover my true nature?
This is an issue I’ve been wrangling with a lot lately. I have absolutely no idea who I am. Things I had considered true, I’m no longer sure I can trust. Reflections offered back by others, I’m now putting aside. I’ve spent this summer watching myself, trying to figure out who I am.
I don’t think what happens inside any person’s head is a measure of who we are. In our heads, many of us are the heroes of our own stories. We are right, justified, reasonable etc. The trouble is, experience demonstrates that many people are not right, much less actually heroic. So how do we get beyond the inclination to think well of ourselves and get some measure of truth and reality? Or for that matter, how do folks who have been conditioned into thinking the worst of themselves break away from that training and find a new self image?
The answer lies not in what we think, but what we do. Intentions and attitudes are of limited use, really. I seek to know myself through how I live, the choices I make. I can get some sense of what I am like from how others respond to me. (Gently, on the whole, with care, kindness and support, aside from a couple of notable exceptions). What kind of people are we surrounded by? If everyone we encounter seems hostile, selfish and uncooperative, is that misfortune, or is some aspect of who we are being reflected back at us? The best sense we can get of how we seem, is by looking at our relationships and seeing what they tell us.
We can tell a lot about ourselves and how we impact on the world by looking at who our friends are. Do we have longstanding friends? And if not, why? There are lots of reasons why a person may find it hard to make and keep friends – shyness, a nomadic lifestyle, eccentricities that make it hard to connect, or just not being a people person can all be issues. But you can also make friends with creatures, and places, and look at those relationships as points of reference. One or two deep friendships will tell you as much about yourself as dozens of casual connections can. Family, neighbours, people we meet through work and daily life all reflect back something of how we come across to them. Do people avoid us, or seek us out? Are you someone to confide in? Am I a good shoulder to cry on?
Creatures and children are very good points of reference. You can’t bullshit a creature. They judge you based on how you treat them. If you are kind and gentle, animals will respond to you in certain friendly ways, or avoid you, if you are not. Being a parent is perhaps the biggest mirror you can hold up to yourself. The person you raise will reflect back all kinds of things about who you are – especially the nature of their primary care giver. Sure, kids can come out well in spite of bad parenting, or come out badly despite best efforts to nurture them, but they’re a very interesting yardstick to measure ourselves by.
In stillness, isolation and inactivity, who we are is entirely theoretical. Action is real, and relationship one of the best ways of seeing how that action manifests. Who we imagine we could be and what we think we might do if only we had the chance, isn’t worth much in the scheme of things. Judge yourself on what you do, not on wishful thinking, or self critical fear.