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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity
Our refusal to forgive ourselves for our mistakes tends to hang on a strong sense of how much these were, in the end, avoidable. We obsessively go back over our slips and errors and contrast what did happen with what could so easily have been skirted if we had not been so fatuous and so witless. We experience recurring jabs of pain at the disjuncture between the agonising present and its now-vanished alternative: we should never have written that email, we should never have become involved with that person, we should have listened more closely to the advice, we should never have borrowed the money…
Alongside the pain come questions: Why didn’t we have greater foresight? Why couldn’t we muster more self-restraint? How could we have been so indiscreet? From this close up, there are no realistic, let alone kind, ways to answer our punitive self-interrogations; as a result, they are likely to go on forever, without let up in agony. We will at best conclude that we messed up because we were greedy, because we were vain, shallow, intemperate and weak-willed; that we have ruined our lives because we are lustful, hare-brained, immature and egocentric.
Our self-hatred will grow ever more intense as we contrast our soiled lives with the impeccable choices of others. The reasonable and good ones, the calm and happy ones, had it right all along: they didn’t succumb to temptations, they stayed steady and dutiful, they kept their priorities straight and paid due respect to public opinion. The overall conclusion is that we are simply awful people, who should probably (depending on the severity of the problem we are in) kill ourselves forthwith.
If we are to avoid eternal self-loathing or suicide, we will have to find another approach. We cannot forever explain our mistakes by examining this or that local flaw in our characters. We need to lean on a far more holistic and objective answer. We messed up because we are human, which in this context means that we belong to a species that is compelled by its very nature to steer through life without the knowledge and experience required to ensure goodness and wisdom, kindness and happiness.
We may regret this or that error, but from the right distance, we are fundamentally steering blind and are therefore doomed to slip up with greater or lesser severity at some point or other. We can’t know exactly whom we should marry. We don’t have fool-proof knowledge of where our real talents lie, let alone how the economy will perform, and therefore can’t determine the sort of career we should optimally invest ourselves in. We may make a reasonable guess at what activities and situations might be dangerous, but we cannot know ahead of time exactly where the true risks lie; there are landmines buried everywhere. Assumptions made in one era may fail to be correct in another. We can be caught out by swift changes in mores: what could have been acceptable at one point can turn into an indecency a few years later.
Certainly, we may have experienced a particularly jagged edge of life that has destroyed us in a very specific way. But though the wound is local, the injury is almost endemic. It could have been foretold from the start that something bad would happen to us at some moment, not because there is anything especially deficient about us, but because human brains are lacking the necessary matter to lead us faultlessly through the decades-long obstacle course of life.
That said, our self-contempt tends to be heightened because we refuse to think about luck. We look at where we have ended up and compare it with the more fortunate places of others and come to only one verdict: we must have been more stupid than they are, our characters must have been more corrupt than theirs. But in the process, we miss out on a critical explanatory factor: whatever our flaws may have been, we may have had to contend with a particularly vicious swerve of fate. There have been people every bit as hasty or unreasonable as us who (for now) have sailed on unmolested. Events have pressed more harshly on the vulnerable parts of our personalities. Anyone who would have been tested as we were would have failed in comparable ways. In assessing our destiny, we should remember to claim a very large role for the forces of foul luck.
At the same time, we do ourselves an injury by comparing ourselves only with those above us, rather than considering our state in the round. In our abject moods, we look enviously at those who are presently riding high while failing to consider the hundreds, even millions, of those who have endured destinies every bit as cruel as our own. The human condition has seldom been a smiling one: we should not compound our difficulties by refusing to consider all those who have wept every bit as much as us and lost even more than us.
Nor should we keep equating ourselves with people who, while they might have some superficial similarities with us in terms of age or educational background, in the end had incomparably different psychological beginnings. They didn’t have our parents, they didn’t have to go through what we did, they didn’t have to master our emotional immaturities. They may seem to be our equals but they in fact belong to a more blessed cohort. We should nurture sympathy for ourselves based on a fine-grained appreciation of the specific burdens we had to take on.
A degree of regret may sometimes be helpful: it can help us to take stock of errors and to avoid the worst of the pitfalls next time. But runaway self-hatred serves no useful purpose; it is, in its masochistic way, an indulgence we can’t afford. We may be foolish, but this doesn’t single us out as particularly awful or unusual; it only confirms that we belong to the human race, a fact for which we deserve limitless sympathy and compassion.