In last week’s Op-Ed, David Brooks asked whether or not “knowing thyself” is possible and, if it is, where it can be separated from the pitfalls and stagnation of narcissism. Self-awareness, argues Brooks, is a “perfect breeding ground for self-deception, rationalization and motivated reasoning.” This happens when we get a little too close to the man in the mirror, which often drives us to oversimplifications or “ruminations”–the despairing paralysis of one’s own fears and anxieties. Either one makes us dangerous self-perceivers. We either become nighthawk depressives or impervious bigots. The best way to “know thyself,” Brooks astutes, is to take a few steps back and see the greater picture.
We are better self-perceivers if we can create distance and see the general contours of our emergent system selves–rather than trying to unpack constituent parts. This can be done in several ways.
If that sounds like a bunch of self-helpy, therapeutic claptrap, there are some practical implications. He suggests this distancing by way of time (which heals all, including our thoughts about ourselves), language (which can be used to speak to ourselves in the third person…?), and narrative (which allows us to see ourselves traveling along a plot that is bigger than ourselves). This third option seems most appealing, because I’m not Bo Jackson, and who likes to wait to be proven wrong?
Others see themselves in broader landscapes, in the context of longer narratives about forgiveness, or redemption or setback and ascent. Maturity is moving from the close-up landscape, focusing less on your own supposed strengths and weaknesses and more on the sea of empathy in which you swim, which is the medium necessary for understanding others, one’s self, and survival.
But are the same propensities for self-delusion, for “motivated reasoning” still there? I think so. Even if we’re speaking to ourselves in the third person, or seeing “our story” amid a greater story of metaphysical weight, our narratival reliability in these situations are anything if suspect. The conclusions we draw about “what God is doing in our lives,” in our journals, in our conversations, in our thoughts in the car, are all too easily littered with our subtle programs of self-approval (or self-hatred). It’s less that this framework is a distancing program, and more a network of oversimplifications, building blocks for a story of Who I Am Becoming. Just look at Facebook.
But Brooks is on to something, something that’s not new in the slightest. His question is “how do you succeed in being introspective without being self-absorbed?” In other words, how do we come to see the truth of ourselves, all of it? And in other words, how do we, unlike Narcissus, stare into the reflection, see it for the holy mess it is, and then walk on?
And while the question is nearly unanswerable, the position I find most helpful is that of Christian mindfulness, which sees the self not merely as a part in a long story, per se, but as un-seeable without the cruciform center. As Richard Rohr writes in Everything Belongs,
Toward the end of his life, Carl Jung said that he was not aware of a single one of his patients in the second half of life whose problems could not have been solved by contact with what he called “the Numinous” and we would call God. An extraordinary statement from a man who had no great love for institutional religion. I believe that we have no real access to who we really are except in God. Only when we rest in God can we find the safety, the spaciousness, and the scary freedom to be who we are, all that we are, more than we are, and less than we are.
This is the kind of introspection that allows for something like epistemological surrender. It is the way to say, “I don’t know” to the varied and sometimes vicious introspections we find ourselves finding. This kind of introspection, though, focuses thoughts on the self in God, the interior of our hearts, allowing everything else—our doubts and quandaries, our inappropriate wallowings, our poor taste in television—as changing, impermanent boundaries. This kind of “self-knowing” is the real kind of distance Brooks references, the kind which allows for the passing of hard nights and valiant victories and turbulent relationships, and insists instead to hold onto and listen for God, who moves towards us. Oddly enough—without trying to sound too therapeutic, I hope—it is a distance that is found within that has always been there. But rather than naming your place on the Christus Victor timeline, you settle into the place you already are, which is where God always was. It is a self-understanding that comes by way of prayer. Again, Richard Rohr:
Living and accepting our own reality will not feel very spiritual. It will feel like we are on the edges rather than dealing with the essence. Thus most run toward more esoteric and dramatic postures instead of bearing the mystery of God’s suffering and joy inside themselves. The edges of our lives—fully experienced, suffered, and enjoyed—lead us back to the center and the essence.
…[Julian of Norwich] said, for example, “First there is the fall, and then there is the recovery from the fall. But both are the mercy of God.”…How did we ever lose that kind of wisdom? Especially when it is almost everybody’s experience. Only the spaciousness of the contemplative mind can see so broadly and trust so deeply. The small calculating mind wants either/or, win/lose, good or bad. Yet we all that the deacon sings of felix culpa on Holy Saturday night. We were saved, the liturgy says, by a “happy mistake.” Jesus reminded Julian that his crucifixion was the worst thing that happened in human history and God made the best out of it to take away all of our excuses. As they were for Jesus, “our wounds became honors.” If the cross is the norm, there seems to be no other way. It is the pattern.