Introspection has long had a good press. About 2500 years ago the authorities at Delphi inscribed on the Temple of Apollo the already ancient injunction Know Thyself (attributed to Thales of Miletus). Since for around a thousand years pilgrims from as far afield as France and Afghanistan visited this central Greek location to consult the Pythian oracle it is a piece of advice which got to be very widespread indeed. A popularity which has endured and, if anything grown.
One can see why. The crucial question we need to know the answer to, whenever we encounter any piece of information, person, object or event, is ‘what does this mean for me?’ Otherwise we will not know, for example, to step out of the path of a runaway horse or to put up a parasol in the sun. To answer this question though we need to understand both terms of it, that is, the piece of information on the one hand and the me which is responding to it on the other. While knowing what horse hooves will do to us is fairly straightforward understanding our own inner complexities is much less so. How we will be affected by a bereavement, starting a new job, moving house or becoming a Jehovahs Witness is something we can only predict with any degree of accuracy if we have spent some time in deep introspection.
As an aside I would note that introspecting is not the same as egoising. It is not an assumption that the universe revolves around me. It is a recognition that the only tool that I have for interacting with everything which I encounter is my me and that, therefore, the better I understand it the more effectively I can use it in these encounters.
Be that as it may the ubiquity of the saying ‘Know Thyself‘ is no guarantee as to its being acted upon in any meaningful sense. As a young John Henry Newman once remarked “Nothing is more common than for men to think that because they are familiar with words, they understand the ideas they stand for” He identified six obstacles to people gaining insight into themselves-
- A failure to steadily self-reflect. People either resist self-reflection because it is hard work or are distracted from it by the glittering toys that surround them.
- Self-love. People are so into themselves that they feel their degree of perfection or superiority or rightness should cause the world to change its attitude to them not that they should adjust themselves to the world.
- Continued good fortune. So long as people enjoy health and prosperity they feel no need to introspect as the universe has satisfactorily adjusted itself to their me.
- Habit. Repeatedly doing the same things sooner rather than later blinds people to the need and benefit of reflecting on the me who does them.
- General Custom. Doing what everybody else in your affinity group does militates against considering why you do it or what effect your me has on it or it has on your me.
- Not looking into one’s moral compass as a mirror. OK, what Newman said here was the Bible but the point is adaptable. Regularly consulting the scripture/philosophy/set of values that we take as a baseline in the world and asking how our me measures up to them is an important exercise in knowing thyself which is often skipped.
Which brings us to Kim Kardashian. Or, more precisely, to Kim Kierkegaardashian a mischievous social media account which puts out gnomic tweets like-
My waxing secret? Find rest and peace in the pain.
Every revelation you make is an illusion; so far no one has succeeded in knowing you. Your white pumps literally go with any outfit.
The conceit being a mind meld between the Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard who famously explored the deepest depths of his soul and the celebrity Kim Kardashian who, also famously, explores the surface of her soul and, indeed, body.
Being humans we can safely presume that Søren had as much surface as Kim and that Kim has as deep a depth as Søren had. The evidence is that Søren avoided the six heffalump traps outlined by Newman. Whether that made him happier and better adjusted is another question. It is possible to have too much introspection or to introspect in unhelpful ways. At some level we have to accept that we are what we are and just live with it. At other levels we are what we need to stop being and we are not yet what we could, should and perhaps will become. How do we get introspection right? Tricky. Although it’s an intensely individual exercise we are essentially relational creatures. As Newman indicated self-reflection takes place within a context of belief and of a community of believers. That is, what we do alone is not necessarily a lonely exercise if we look for guidance and support from the therapeutic expertise of the group to which we belong or whose wisdom we have grounds to trust.
As for Kim, well, we can see what she does but we cannot see what she is. As I wrote in an earlier post, Surrounded by Enigmas, our neighbours are opaque to us. For all we know Ms Kardashian may reflect deeply on her me. Introspection doesn’t necessarily imply introversion or passivity, it is perfectly compatible with a busy extrovert life. We do know that Kim sees part of her me inextricably linked to her ancestral identity as an Armenian and also to the attempted genocide carried out by Turkey against the Armenians. Such a commitment does not come from a place of shallowness or an absence of self-reflection.
The thing about introspection is that the only person who really knows that you are doing it is you. Ultimately the only person who can know thyself is thyself. Everyone else is, to some degree or another, a stranger.
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The picture, from Reuters, is of Kim Kardashian in Yerevan, Armenia.