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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

The Always Unfinished Business of Self-Knowledge

Whatever our commitment to self-knowledge, we have no alternative but to go to our deaths having understood only a fraction of who we have been. We are – each one of us – fated to be laid to rest in an at-least-partially unknown grave.

We may – for example – never understand why certain things made us so anxious, what drove some of our behaviour in relationships or what our true working talents were. We still won’t know entirely why a marriage broke up, a friendship ended in acrimony or an enthusiasm was formed. We’ll burst into tears at moments we didn’t expect or grow irritable or joyful without knowledge of the real sources of our anger or delight.

Magnified photograph/representation of neurons in the brain.

We can’t be held entirely responsible for our ignorance. There are as many neurons in our brains as there are stars in the nearby Andromeda Galaxy: around 100 billion, each one capable of connection to the others in wholly unique and hard-to-trace ways. It should be no wonder if we manage only a few fleeting sorties around certain spiral arms and superclusters. If life is like a large book, we will be interrupted no further in than one of the early chapters, our finger holding our place mid-paragraph as we breathe our last.

We can at least strive to put ourselves in situations where we stand the highest chances of meeting with the occasional insight. We might:

— Lie in bed for a long time thinking

— Soak in very hot baths

— Take train journeys in empty carriages across open distances

— Walk with curious friends

— Have therapy

— Read a lot—

— Stare out of the window at the clouds and the rain

— Do so-called ‘nothing’ very often

— Journal

— Eat alone

— Listen to feedback from partners, especially the difficult parts

— Unpack our anxiety, sorrow, joy and anger

— Look in the mirrors that colleagues, parents, children and strangers are holding up.

Throughout we might be looking out for answers to some of the following puzzles:

— How our childhoods have shaped us

— What we project

— What we deny

— Where we lack courage

— What threatens us

— What renders us cruel

— How we remain limitlessly immature

At the end of it all, after an ideal ninety years of cogitation, we’ll have done very well indeed if we have managed to secure just a few remotely reliable maps to one or two miniscule corners of the territory. We need to develop a compassionate tender sense of humour for this curious bipedal creature who – alone among the animals – isn’t only alive but is additionally condemned to wonder why they might be so. Socrates told us to know ourselves: he was careful to add a legendary, infinitely-hard-to-absorb addendum: that the beginning of wisdom is to know, at last, how little one knows.

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