A suggestion from Socrates…

Well, it is great to be back in the land of blog – the past few months have been quite insane, but God is good and I am still alive and breathing. This post is written for a very good friend who asked me a recent question on facebook in response to something I had written.

That ‘something’ was in fact a ‘status update’ that read thus:

Heads-up to all those serious about self-discovery: don’t start the journey if you’re not ready to live with the fact that you may not like some of what you discover…

I can tell you quite categorically that as we come towards the end of 2011, I am not the same human being who began the year. Well, on one hand I am. However, at the same time, I am not. I’m really not. And a major part of this has come about through circumstances allowed and indeed ordained by God Himself which have been expressly set up to bring me to the most serious position of self-awareness that I have ever possessed.

The price has been monstrous. I have a completely new level of sympathy for those who run away from self-discovery on a truly genuine level. But I would still not encourage anyone to do anything other than go on that journey for themselves.

It was with no small measure of déjà-vu that I came across this article from Scientific American recently; check it out for yourself:

We humans are introspective. We observe patterns of our own behavior and we have memories for review. So you probably think you know yourself pretty well, right?

Not so fast. In fact, others can have much more accurate impressions of us than we do. That’s according to a review article in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

The challenge in knowing oneself is that we have blind spots. These gaps are fueled by fears and an unconscious drive to maintain a particular self-image or self-worth. One study showed that even watching a recording of yourself that may be at odds with your self-perception does not change that self-perception. But others watching the same tape easily spot the inconsistency.

A 2010 study found that friends are significantly more accurate in judging traits like intelligence, talkativeness and creativity—traits that are observable and measurable. So when a friend says, “You know, you’re really smart,” it’s very possible that you really are smart.

What we can accurately gauge is our own levels of anxiety and self-esteem. So when giving a presentation, for instance, you’re probably much more aware of state of mind than your audience is. And speaking as a presenter, that’s a good thing to keep in mind.

—Christie Nicholson

Now, without question, there are huge questions that would need to be addressed before one could accept many of the statements in that mini-article as literal fact. But it certainly provokes some questions that one may not otherwise think of…and this is precisely where I am going. How well does anyone actually know themselves? More pointedly, how well do we know how well we know about anything at all? Let me break that down. Let’s say that my (imaginary) friend Rosie claims to know herself really well. How does she know this? How does she know that she really has gotten a true insight into herself and that her own perception of who she is does actually correspond with the ACTUAL reality of whom she really is?

Yes, the evidence does suggest that it is easier for us to figure other people out more easily than we can figure out ourselves. Therefore, for many people, it is now a ‘given’ that any given person does not know themselves as well as others do – because external people see us more ‘objectively’ than we see ourselves.  However, is it reasonable to make this a ‘given?’ Is it not also true that people make value-judgements about the character and make-up of other people’s personas based on their own experiences, presuppositions, biases and more? I certainly know what it is to be with people who refuse to accept my own serious and palpable enthusiasm for whatever it happened to be was in any way real – because they themselves could not muster any real kind of enthusiasm of that nature themselves for anything at all – and in imposing this on everyone else, they were somewhat cynical of the ‘realness’ of my own cynicism.

A few took on the challenge of exploring the vibe, and some have become great friends as a result. Others continue to think that I am a strange and not-good person. We cannot win with everyone!

So this is where this particularly well-known bit of advice from Socrates comes into its own: “know thyself.”

Earlier in my adult life, I was one of those people who spent vast amounts of time analysing, assessing and appraising other people’s characters. I became particularly good at this – but then what I did not realise was that I was unconsciously yet deliberately using this as a chief deflecting tactic to avoid the same ruthlessly clinical analysis of myself. It was not until I read the marvellously candid-yet-wonderfully-hopeful Confessions of a Pastor by Craig Goeschel (a book that I will soon be giving to a friend of mine who is a full-time pastor himself – I feel led to do that for him, much as I want to keep it for myself and I do now believe that God is behind this impulse) that I realised the simple truth that we judge others by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our intentions!

I spent my ENTIRE adult life doing that until I read that statement – and from that moment, my world turned upside down. Not that I always get everything correct and in sync first time round these days – but more that I no longer harbour the quiet complacency of my own state of being based on what I meant to do  – even if I didn’t actually do it. I now have no choice but to constantly assess the relationship between my intentions and my actions – and by the stripes, I do not come out well at all on more occasions than I am comfortable admitting even to myself in my most private moments.

[I have a funny feeling that this statement appears elsewhere in another blog post, but who cares?!]

This is where we’re going: as my levels of actual self-knowledge have gone up and up and up, I have found myself unable to find a place of rest where I can plateau out for a while. Everything that I could do to make my life easier without compromising my principles has simply not worked out. So when ‘easy life’ didn’t work out, I pursued ‘busyness’ instead – only to find myself with nothing to do – and I have since realised that I could have used that time to advance certain areas of my life – but hindsight is hind-sight for a reason! Any fool can be clever after the fact.

Had it not been for John Eldredge’s writings, I might have lost hope altogether – but God used those writings to keep a sense of balance within me – and far from being all-sufficient in themselves, they pointed me back to the Word. I had the strongest sense that I was being thwarted by a loving God who knew that my version of how things were supposed to work out in my life was not necessarily the best thing in the long run. One part of me fully accepted that. But another part of me could not handle the fact that I had no grasp on why things were happening as they were. And the internal conflict (and subsequent consequences) that this created is the worst thing that I have EVER experienced in my entire life. God has done some amazing things in 2011. But other things have been disastrous. Why would He allow some things to work out and not others?!?!?!?!?!?!?

The answer is both simple and yet devastating. Despite having achieved a quite astounding level of self-knowledge, I still did not know enough about certain aspects of myself to be able to continue growing into WHO God wants and needs me to be for my soul’s salvation – and this before we get to the not-so-small matter of the work He has called me to do in Christian ministry. Every family has its problems, but not all problems are equal. Mine is uniquely complicated, and includes a vast number of children who were not all born into positive circumstances. One example: the extent of the irresponsible sexual behaviour on the part of certain of my progenitors has had a monumental impact on the lives of my parents’ generations, on my own generation and (if the current evidence is anything to go by) will continue to impact upon the subsequent generations that will follow. In the widest sense of the word, both my father’s family and my mother’s family have massive dysfunctions. Both families have one abiding common denominator – folk think with their emotions more than with their minds – with the result being that the cognitive damage suffered by MANY members of my family is quite extraordinary. Yes indeed – for those of you who really have not known that the emotional choices we make actually impact our overall cognitive functional abilities over time – so it really is the case that the more emotionally indisciplined we are, the more we hurt our ability to think properly in general! This is a massive concept – go look for Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Golem if you have never encountered it before (and even if you have – but have not yet managed to read about it for your own self).

Right across my family spectrum, genuinely rational thought is at a real premium. So this begs the question – what makes any of us think that we are more rational than anyone else?

And what qualifies me to comment on other people’s inability to think coherently and rationally – whether in my family or not?

Well, anyone is free to draw his or her own conclusions about my sanity or reason. I have spent 2011 wondering why I seem to be so strong in my understanding of certain things and so weak in others. And as I look at my wider family and shake my head in bewilderment at various things, I do wonder why I am not more like them…

…oh, wait up just one second –

– actually, I really am like my family, but God has facilitated numerous circumstances that have enabled me to learn, process, think and analyse very differently to virtually all of my (many) relatives. He has also shoehorned me into corners to test my faith and force me to learn to pray different prayers – real prayers, as opposed to earnest academic prayers that are so theologically careful that I end up not relating to God as a Father but as a theology tutor in whose good books I desperately want to be.

I am not fundamentally different to my family at all. But my LIFE has been fundamentally different to both the members of my nuclear family and my wider family. Moreover, my education and experiences have taught me things that even my parents have had no way to learn and know. That is what helps me to see certain things. I am not some wonderfully ‘on-it’ individual who has transcended the limitations of birth, circumstances and culture – I am a peculiar person who has been led on a unique journey by God Himself to learn two things: a) who God really is; b) who I really am.

Discovering the weaknesses in my parents and other older relatives was much more fun when I did not realise that their weaknesses were actually mine too. Some of you readers may not accept that and I won’t fight you, but I stand by that last sentence. Yes, your grandparents may have been racist and you may not be – but is that because you ARE fundamentally different, or because you have LEARNED differently? The two things are not the same!

Discovering the weaknesses in my friends was also more fun until I realised that those who you spend time with, you become like. Now, some of us may have been exceptions to this rule – but even so, we may have taken more of what we didn’t want to take from our friends and associates than we have ever realised. Just because you are not ‘easily led’ in any obvious sense does not mean that you are immune from peer pressure. Many people who become popular and respected for their independence of mind and being end up having to work so hard to maintain the things that gave them that increased social cachet that they are no longer truly independent – unless they stick with being real, in which case they may yet lose the status they once had if their views and behaviour are no longer what others choose to find socially admirable. So who chooses ‘being real’ over ‘being respected?’

The gospel message saved both of my parents, but the gospel is not merely one of many ‘lifestyle choices.’ True, too many Christians do live as if that is all that it is, but it is more than that. I have always known this, but sometimes I want to fit in too. I get tired of walking on my own and I want to belong. And the price to ‘belong?’ My real self.

Ten years ago, in 2001, I nearly left the Christian faith and the Seventh-Day Adventist faith.

In 2011, I came the closest I could ever come to leaving since my experiences of 2001, but despite everything, God has kept me right here in this message. The gospel itself means more than ever before, and the message of the SDA church remains the pathway for me as a conservative Bible-believing Christian. And in knowing myself better, I am more rounded, more empathetic than ever before, more able to connect than ever before – in short, I am a radically superior human being to the one I was this time last year. God’s training regime is never what I would have chosen if I was in charge – but as I want to avoid pain like most of us – I would have gone soft on me. Of course I would. And I would be less as a result.

There are still battles to fight and mountains to climb, but because I have come through this year with my faith still in one piece, I know that the best is yet to come. Praise God, He is the one calling the shots.

So, bring on 2012 in JESUS’ NAME!

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2 comments on “A suggestion from Socrates…

  1. abeccai says:

    Alex. Powerful introspection in this entry. I especially like this line…”we judge others by their actions, but we judge ourselves by our intentions!”

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