Know Yourself

If you have a glossy screen this rectangle should work like a mirror.


Socrates said: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

So, why are you alive? Or rather, why are you still alive?

Seriously, Socrates was a clever guy and he made a hell of a departure, but by his standards, most of you would have to follow him. Not because you lead the youth of Athens astray, but yourself.

Because you do not know yourself.

And you’re not alone. Many people don’t know themselves.

They distract themselves from finding out what they really want. They become what (they think) others expect of them — “others” being their parents, their friends, their partners, their colleagues, their neighbors, or even their religious leaders. They are controlled by the honey-and-stick of their environment, the subtle forces that act upon them and control their lives. They live day-to-day for short time pleasures that are mere scraps of what they could get out of life!

But they never see the whole range of possibilities, they never find out what they want in life, what they burn for, what they strive for, what they aspire to be. They never find the determination to cross the large stretches of adversity that cover the distance to more fertile grounds.

Some have reasons for not knowing their goals, their desires.

Some say that they do not have the time to reflect on them. But you will never “have the time” for anything, you have to make it, for yourself, and defend it against others and yourself.

Some think that knowing oneself means arresting one’s own development — like a caterpillar that tries to know itself and never becomes a butterfly. But doesn’t knowing yourself include knowing what you want to become? A caterpillar who knows it wants to become a butterfly would by no means arrest its development, quite the contrary.

Some claim they want the randomness, the surprise. But what surprise? Finding out at the end of your life that you have wasted your life, that you did not do what you really wanted, that you lived the life of someone else? It will be a surprise for you to find out what you want in life, and you will have many more surprises when you try to get what you want.

Some even claim that life is all a matter of fate. And in part it is. You cannot control every aspect of your life, which is a good thing. But while the event that you see as fate might not be in your control, your reaction to it is. And it’s the way we deal with adversity that defines us, that shows us who we are, and what we want … and how much we want it.

Some say that it is difficult to find out what we want, and they are right. We aren’t fruit-flies. We are human beings, we are what happens when the falling angel meets the rising ape. We are complex beings, and understanding complexity is never simple. This makes it even more important for you to find out what you want in life, to handle your own complexity.

And lastly, some say that knowing what you want in life leads to huge disappointment if you do not get it. And you will not get everything you want. Sometimes you have to compromise, because no man is an island, and that will hurt. But this price is cheap compared to deluding yourself. Compared to wasting your life by getting things you didn’t even know you didn’t want, until the only things you get are regrets. And you don’t want those either.

So, drown out the voices of others — the ads, the well-meant advices, the social pressures. Because it’s easy to find your goals in relation to others — but these are mere copies or inverted copies. You will either become a conformist or a rebel this way, which really are the same thing and likely not yours.

Stop distracting yourself. Stop running away from yourself. Face yourself. Seek silence and hear your thoughts. Seek solitude and feel your emotions. Be honest with yourself, because no matter how hard you may try in life, you cannot betray your soul for ever.

And don’t live your life in quiet desperation — think, feel, explore; examine your life, ask and challenge yourself, find out what you burn for, what you yourself desire from your life — but then go and get it.

Follow your own conscience, your own preferences, and your own desires. Determine your actions by what you think, feel, want, and desire inside. And never ever become a sidekick, a screen for other people’s projections, or a safety line for other people’s insecurities. Never submit your life under that of another person — unless that actually is what you desire.

Friedrich Nietzsche said: “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

That was Nietzsche’s opinion, you’ve heard Socrates’, you’ve heard others, and you’ve heard mine. But all these people are not important. You have to decide for yourself, what is right and true for you … and what is not … and why.

Thank you for listening.



Note 1: Besides the referenced quotes, this text uses quotations by Terry Pratchett (“where the falling angel meets the rising ape” … ahem, sorry, I mean “WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE”), John Donne (“no man is an island”), André Gide (caterpillar argument against knowing oneself), Paul Vixie (conformist = rebel), Henry David Thoreau (“lives of quiet desperation”), and probably many others that I didn’t even realize when writing. It’s like Sam said in “The West Wing”: “Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright.” 😉

Note 2: This text was written as an homework assignment for my speech trainer. She asked me to hold a 2-minute speech about something I burn for. Well, it’s more a fusion reactor at work than a let’s-burn-the-witch fever, but, yes, I burn for individuality. While I think that conformity has its uses (e.g., when driving a car) and even authoritarian decision making is necessary at times (e.g., the democratic process does not work in foxholes), it is the individuality that makes humans interesting and worthwhile. It was probably always hard to be an individual, to move outside the herd, but I think that today it is harder than ever. In earlier times it was probably hard to see that such a thing was possible. Today it is hard to find ones own voice in all the voices that tell one what to do and what not to do. It’s easy to be tricked to try to be “just different”, which still means that others determine what you are — by what they aren’t. You take the spot they have not occupied instead of eclectically taking what is yours and rejecting what is not based on your preferences. And how can you be original, how can you be creative, if you are not able to do this?

Update: Not sure I still agree with it.