“Know thyself,” the famous words inscribed on the ancient temple at Delphi, underscore the importance of understanding oneself deeply. Self-understanding can be achieved at varying levels, however. One’s principal likes and dislikes, one’s inclinations toward or away from certain behaviors, even one’s chief virtues or vices lie at one level. These may be easily seen and in a sense tend to be superficially brought to our awareness.
But deeper self-awareness is not only desirable but possible. Many of our character flaws and weaknesses lie beneath our ready ability to see. Others, perhaps, may see what we cannot see or are unwilling to confront. Likewise, we may undervalue our strengths and talents. We may hide them out of fear of failure, or we may be oblivious to their existence at all.
Uncovering those deeper traits can be a difficult and sometimes painful process. It calls for deep introspection. It requires constant attention to the nuanced feedback we get from others. And it demands willingness to admit, at least to ourselves, the errors and failures we commit.
I readily admit to my own imperfections. To help identify and overcome them, I continually try to understand myself, my deeper motives and proclivities, and how they condition the ways I act. To prod myself to dive more deeply into my character traits, I find it helpful to have a source of inspiration. For that reason, I collect quotations and pointed advice from any sources I find helpful. Many of these are collected in a short book I published, On Living Well: Reflections on Creating a Good Life (Amazon).
I wrote this book for me, though others may find it helpful as well. I carry out a daily practice with the book; I open my copy to a random page and absorb the wisdom that’s printed there. This helps me elevate my thinking to a higher plane, above the mundane, and pose probing questions that will help me achieve more profound self-knowledge.
I’d like to share a few of these expressions to illustrate my point. Perhaps you, too, will find these to be meaningful.
“It is much harder to judge yourself than to judge others. If you succeed in judging yourself, it’s because you are truly a wise man.” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince
“The only thing that consoles us for our miseries is distraction, yet that is the greatest of our wretchednesses. Because that is what prevents us from thinking about ourselves and leads us imperceptibly to damnation.” Blaise Pascal, Pensées, 33
“A great failing: to see yourself as more than you are and to value yourself at less than your true worth.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Maxims and Fragments, 476
“Few people have sense enough to prefer blame from which they can benefit to praise which leads them astray.” La Rochefoucauld, The Maxims, 147
“Our evil is not just in the outside, it is within us, it is seated in our vitals–and it is that much harder to attain health when we do not know we are sick.” Seneca, Epistles, 50.3-4