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Self-Knowledge: Fulfilment


A More Self-Accepting Life

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One of the ways in which we can accelerate, and keep faith with, change is to look forward to a time when it has occurred and anticipate what it might be like to have made progress with our psyches. Here is some of what we might expect when we have come to lead more self-accepting lives:

– We would not be inordinately pleased with ourselves or bask in an impression of our own wondrousness. We would still be clear-eyed as to our multiple faults; it’s just that we would have started to interpret these in a new way. No longer would they be an argument for self-flagellation or for feelings of exceptional wretchedness; no longer would they have to lead to long periods of depression and paranoia. We would be aware both of our shortcomings and of how endemic these were to the race as a whole. We wouldn’t feel singled out or persecuted. We would know that we belonged to a sinful and inherently foolish species that had been making a mess of things from the start, and that there were, from a sufficient perspective, few options for us other than to do so in turn.

– We would have learnt to cast a benevolent eye on our follies, to treat ourselves like naughty children, deserving of a measure of imagination and sympathy, not monsters intent on causing harm. We would know how rooted our wayward characters were in aspects of our early history and in family dynamics that defied easy understanding and alteration. We would know we were idiots, but, from some angles at least, idiots of the more loveable sort.

– We would know that we deserved love not because of how perfect and accomplished we were, but because of how broken and desperate we remained. We would understand that the noblest kind of love springs from sympathy for what is weak and malformed, not from admiration for what is flawless and serene.

– We would have learnt how to let other people into our lives and how to bond with them around a shared revelation of fear and dependence. We would let off small signs to others that we understood that they might be going through something similar to us, and that they would be safe with their vulnerabilities in our company. We would have grasped that true friendship demands a sloughing off of pride and an acceptance of our mutual mediocrity and neediness. We would have ensured that our friendships were kindly and humour-filled celebrations of our common eccentricities, disappointments and terrors.

– We would be modest about our capacity to love ourselves reliably. We would know that we had for years been struck by a chronic illness and that it could not be overcome in a few weeks or months. We would be committed to managing our symptoms and to carefully shielding ourselves from what might provoke or aggravate our condition. We would be especially careful of media, false friends, overfull diaries and the wrong kinds of professional ambition. But we’d also know that lapses into self-hatred were inevitable and would not castigate ourselves for them too severely when they occurred. There would be no need to hate ourselves for sometimes hating ourselves on top of it all.

Our awareness of how much time we had lost to self-hatred would render us especially sensitive to moments when we were free of the sickness and could engage with our work and with our friends, with nature and with culture without sapping fear and despair. We would be particularly grateful for those days when we could wake up free of dread and could trust that we were deserving and good enough to continue.

With a new assertiveness against self-hatred, we would in addition pick up how to speak to our inner critic in a new and less abject way whenever they visited us in our low moods. Here are some of the answers we might have learnt to give to this ferocious voice:

Inner critic: You’re a disgrace.

Self-loving reply: Of course: I have failed, I have got things wrong, I have been impatient, I have been immature and hare-brained. I know this inside out. But there are limits to how mesmerised one should remain by this appalling insight. I have better things to do than to jump at its mention every time like a soldier to a bugle. I refuse to devote the remainder of my days to a rehearsal of all the particulars of my own unworthiness.

Inner critic: You’ve made some terrible mistakes.

Self-loving reply: As we all have. We are all born blind; we stumble in the darkness. We bring our good intentions to bear on the confusing reality of life and give birth to catastrophes. We have been sinners since Adam and Eve. I may be bad, but I am not alone.

Inner critic: You should surely want to die.

Self-loving reply: That is the easy way out. The challenge is to work out how to continue in the face of all the arguments in favour of slitting one’s own throat. And there is no better reason than because one is still capable of helping others who, right now, are as lost as we once were.

Inner critic: Look at all those other, amazing people who do better than you.

Self-loving reply: I have no further interest in comparing my life to theirs. I can’t tell what they may be going through inside or what fate could have in store for them. I can only own my own story, with its particular mixture of pain and arduousness. I have done the best I could, within the limited confines of my understanding and with the awkwardness of the cards I was dealt.

Inner critic: You have wasted so much time.

Self-loving reply: To which the only answer is love: love what remains of our days, love  charity, self-forgiveness, mercy, modesty, acceptance, appreciation and gratitude.

Progress will be slow, some days it will seem as though we have learnt nothing at all, but broadly we will be on our way. We will be in recovery from the depredations of self-directed loathing. We will know that we have acquired more fruitful options than to tear ourselves apart. We will have left the shores of self-hatred for the wider, kinder seas of self-acceptance.

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