Chapter 4.Self: Self-Knowledge


Thinking Too Much; and Thinking Too Little

Thinking about ourselves – our feelings, our past, our desires and our hopes – is a hugely tricky task that most of us spend a good deal of effort trying very hard to avoid. We keep away from ourselves because so much of what we could discover threatens to be painful. We might find that we were, in the background, deeply furious with, and resentful about, certain people we were only meant to love. We might discover how much ground there was to feel inadequate and guilty on account of the many errors and misjudgements we have made. We might find that though we wanted to be decent, law-abiding people, we harboured fantasies that went in appallingly deviant and aberrant directions. We might recognise how much was nauseatingly compromised and needed to be changed about our relationships and careers.

We don’t only have a lot to hide, we are liers of genius. It is part of the human tragedy that we are such natural self-deceivers. Our techniques are multiple and close to invisible. Two are worth focusing on in particular: our habit of thinking too much. And our proclivity for thinking too little.

When we think too much, in essence, we are filling our minds with impressive ideas, which blatantly announce our intelligence to the world but subtly ensure we won’t have much room left to rediscover long-distant feelings of ignorance or confusion – upon which the development of our personalities nevertheless rests.

We write dense books on the role of government bonds in the Napoleonic wars or publish extensively on Chaucer’s influence on the mid-19th century Japanese novel. We secure degrees from Institutes of Advanced Study or positions on editorial boards of scientific journals. Our minds are crammed with arcane data. We can wittily inform a dining table of guests who wrote the Enchiridion (Epictetus) or the life and times of Dōgen (the founder of Zen Buddhism). But we don’t remember very much at all about how life was long ago, back in the old house, when father left, mother stopped smiling and our trust broke in pieces.

We deploy knowledge and ideas that carry indubitable prestige to stand guard against the emergence of more humble, but essential knowledge from our emotional past. We bury our personal stories beneath an avalanche of expertise. The possibility of a deeply consequential intimate enquiry is deliberately left to seem feeble and superfluous next to the supposedly grander task of addressing a conference on the political strategies of Dona Maria the First or the life-cycle of the Indonesian octopus.

We lean on the glamour of being learned to make sure we won’t need to learn too much that hurts.

Then there is our habit of thinking too little.

Here we pretend that we are simpler than we really are and that too much psychology might be nonsense and fuss about nothing. We lean on a version of robust common-sense to ward off intimations of our own awkward complexity. We imply that not thinking very much is, at base, evidence of a superior kind of intelligence.

In company, we deploy bluff strategies of ridicule against more complex accounts of human nature. We sideline avenues of personal investigation as unduly fancy or weird, implying that to lift the lid on inner life could never be fruitful or entirely respectable. We use the practical mood of Monday morning 9 a.m. to ward off the complex insights of 3.a.m. the previous night, when the entire fabric of our existence came into question against the backdrop of a million stars, spread like diamonds on a mantle of black velvet. Deploying an attitude of vigorous common sense, we strive to make our moments of radical disquiet seem like aberrations – rather than the central occasions of insight they might actually be.

We appeal to the understandable longing that our personalities be non-tragic, simple and easily comprehended – so as to reject the stranger, but more useful facts of our real, intricate selves.

A defence of emotional honesty has nothing to do with high minded morality. It is ultimately cautionary and egoistic. We need to tell ourselves a little more of the truth because we pay too high a price for our lies. Through our deceptions, we cut ourselves off from possibilities of growth. We shut off large portions of our minds and end up uncreative, tetchy and defensive, while others around us have to suffer our irritability, gloom, manufactured cheerfulness or defensive rationalisations. Our neglect of the awkward sides of ourselves buckles our very being, emerging as insomnia or impotence, stuttering or depression; revenge for all the thoughts we have been so careful not to have. Self-knowledge isn’t a luxury so much as a precondition for a measure of sanity and inner comfort.

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