Self-awhereness? Self-awhoness? Self-awhatness?
And for that matter, self-awhyness? A favorite “Get Fuzzy” cartoon strip questions if confident self-awareness shared with (or perhaps inflicted on) others has a downside.
Shakespeare put self-awareness, or lack thereof, and our human propensity to give each other advice center stage in “Hamlet.” The Counselor to the King, Polonius, said to his son: “To thine own self be true.”
Did he mean not to rely too heavily on the opinions of others or to use a personal moral compass or perhaps to not deceive himself about his capacity? Regardless of the meaning of that statement, or of his other offered words of wisdom, things do not turn out too well for anyone in “Hamlet” based on Polonius’, or anyone else’s, counsel.
Self-awareness is both internal and external (how we see ourselves and how we think others see us). After Aristotle took academic study to the place of empiricism, we understood that we grow our knowledge through the lens of our own experience. Although his work implies to me the educational limitations of our singular point of view, often it seems that empirical belief can be presented as synonymous with fact.
Those quick to share strong opinions as truth may or may not realize that they are relying on their “experience alone without due regard for science and theory,” as the definition states.
A person of enlightenment and self-awareness is often believed (or believes him or herself) to possess some universal (and thus, externally applicable) understanding. But does so much knowledge of self lead to an implied knowledge of others?
We have all heard and used the phrases, “I can read him like a book,” or “She is just like all [fill in the descriptor],” or my favorite, “You know what you should do?”
The lead character, Ramsay, in a great book, “Fifth Business” by Robertson Davies, works hard to bring order to others’ lives despite being told by both an angel and a devil (of sorts) to stop being “responsible for other people’s troubles” and that Ramsay’s focus on fixing others actually keeps him from being human himself.
Ethical and self-help advice has been doled out by everyone from Homer to Emerson, from Benjamin Franklin to Dale Carnegie. The first subject book, “Self-Help; with Illustrations of Character and Conduct,” was published in 1859 by a man appropriately named Smiles.
Samuel Smiles was a guru of the time, but also lambasted by many who believed him an indication of “an obliteration of mental faculties.” By the end of the 20th century, modern philosophy and psychology had determined that we are beings able to change by self-improvement, encouraging more time for self-reflection and searching for guidance.
Full disclosure. I am a fixer, always fighting the urge to solve problems, organize things, and see challenges as puzzles not contests (anything can be figured out if you try hard enough). In this column, I certainly do not hesitate to share my opinion, but Shakespeare, Davies and many others remind me to try not to inject myself into other’s decision-making or actions.
Looking inward may certainly bring understanding of our own inspirations, fears, shortcomings, and motivations, and hopefully helps us to be better people. The phrase “contemplating one’s navel” comes from meditation, but has also come to represent an extremely introspective soliloquy, like Hamlet asking “to be or not be…”