Changing How the World Thinks

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Know Thyself

‘Know thyself’ was Socrates’ maxim for an ethical life. But is the self real and stable enough that it can be known?
49 true to myself 1
He was using his power to get sex. Photograph: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

What does it mean to be true to yourself? Each one of us has a unique sense of self, but to arrive at that realisation is a lifetime project. This is especially true today.

We live in a world surrounded by technological innovation, and sometimes it feels as if we’re not sophisticated enough to cope. We have become overwhelmed by our surroundings and retreated into a world of technology.

You walk down the street and everyone’s face is to their phones – they’re either looking at them or speaking into them or listening to them. Why are we all suddenly doing this? It is part of a process of homogenisation that masks important aspects of our uniqueness as individuals.

Each of us have our own particular abilities – whether that’s the ability to perceive shapes or patterns or to get lost in a particular physical activity, or have a real instinct about taste or smell. As a result, we all have different interests too – whether this is at the level of brain activity or more spiritually. The important thing is to have, by good fortune, the ability to carry out our lives in ways that sympathise with those particular differences that are within us. When that is possible, then you see the best in human beings.

Pre-existing structures such as social conventions or language create boundaries. Some people are comfortable within those boundaries and other people are limited by them. At some points you may feel those boundaries are comfortable; at others they may feel like they’re biting into you. When you feel that then you understand that you’re living in a particularly limited frame and you need to shift that frame in order to be content and be at peace with yourself. We can see this all the time when ideas such as gender or sexuality or race or have been formed in a particular way. When that happens you have to push against these boundaries and find other ways to mediate identity in order to live more freely.

We live on an abundant planet and abundance should be shared in every way. Whatever limits that abundance also limits the potential of each individual to thrive in the way that they were made to thrive according to their particular make-up, their particular gifts and their particular spirit.

If you put forward harm into the world then not only does that diminish the place that you put that harm but on some level it also diminishes you. Life should be about abundance and not diminishment. We are here not to diminish, but to flourish – individually and collectively – ideally, in an environment of love and support and encouragement.

But, of course, death and illness are also part of life. People get ill and people die. But death is not just about those who die; it is about the people who are left to cope with death. From the most painful experiences, from illness, and from social traumas, we can learn about ourselves through conscious self-reflection.

I work with grief so I see people cope with death all the time. For some people it’s a relieving experience, for some it can be enriching, for others it feels like there is no end to the suffering. In each case, however, death can make us think about who we are.

But it should not take such traumatic experiences for us to undertake such reflection. If we really reflected on our sense of self in our daily lives we would live in a better world. Who thinks, for example, that they were born to work in an office everyday? I think that it’s far too critical for people to reflect on their true nature en masse. Because, en masse, we’d all be doing something entirely different.

People are not consciously aware often enough of the hierarchies we live within, that shape our interactions with each other. If we were able really to engage with each other as human beings – not on the basis of race, gender, sexuality or any kind of utilitarian function – that would slow the whole world down. The world would become radically different – more frank and more generous.

At the same time, life is simple and it’s radical. Life is about abundance, it’s about love, it’s about flourishing, and it’s about neutrality. For me, it’s not about being elitist; it should be about togetherness, and putting that into practice is radical because it affects where we shop, what we eat, what we spend our money on, who we work for, and how we engage with others every day of our lives. It demands vigilance. That is radical, but that’s what life is and what love is too.

 

As told to the IAI.

 

 

 

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