Know thyself' sounds really worthy but what does it actually mean? | by  Gary Hawker | Medium

Know Thyself

Rev. Douglas Taylor


More than 20 years ago I had my first encounter with the personality assessment tool called the Enneagram. I was part of a group of seminary students invited to take the test and learn more about the tool. This was not part of our regular courses, instead it was offered by the minister serving the church across the street from the seminary.

If you are not familiar with the enneagram, it is a personality tool which, through self-assessment, sorts people into nine interconnected types. It is often used in the business world similar to the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator, which is a little more widely known. The Myers-Briggs uses 16 types, each known by a string of 4 letters, while the Enneagram results are simply the numbers 1 through 9. (I am a 4, if you are interested in knowing).

As I was saying, I had my first opportunity to take the Enneagram while I was in seminary. That’s the other distinction of the Enneagram; other personality tests were designed for businesses but the enneagram was meant for spiritual exploration and self-development.

Traditionally, it is when we are students, often as children, that we are encouraged to spend time in the pursuit of self-knowledge, self-development. Or if we enter a particular field or career we might be so encouraged. Most of us as adults end up defining ourselves by what we do, It can be difficult to tease out who we are apart from our work. But through the ages, philosophers and great thinkers have extolled the virtue of self-examination in the pursuit of wisdom.

In his famous essay “Apology,” Plato describes the Trial of Socrates. The elder philosopher is accused of corrupting the youth of Athens with his teachings. He is given a choice of punishment – death or exile.  As a rationale for accepting death over exile, Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Similarly, ages later, Henry David Thoreau would proclaim, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartanlike as to put to rout all that was not life.” Thoreau would have been fine with exile, Socrates came to a different conclusion. I suspect Socrates and Thoreau may have disagreed on methods, but agreed on the ultimate goal. Likewise, Emerson and Aristotle, Shakespeare and Schweitzer, Camus and Lao Tzu, Simone de Beauvoir and Sigmund Freud – again and again the message is offered that the way to wisdom is through some form of examination of the self. Philosophers and sages throughout time have followed the dictum of Socrates: “To know thyself is the beginning of wisdom.”

But here is the really interesting part: often when you do that deeper work on yourself, you tend to also have a greater capacity to understand and relate to others.

So let us consider our work this morning – to know ourselves, to learn what we may of life through self-examination. And our first point of reference shall be to acknowledge that the ‘self’ is a dynamic, growing reality. You are not going to take a course in yourself and finish after a semester, or take a test and discover everything you need to know about yourself and be done. We are always growing and changing. Rev. A. Powell Davies said life is a chance to grow a soul. May Sarton begins her poem (which we used as our reading) saying “Now I become myself.” Socrates spent a lifetime uncovering self-knowledge. And so it will be for each of us as well.

All of this is well and good – but let us admit these philosophers and sages tend to have competing ideas about what the ‘self’ is and how best one is to go about examining it. This can be daunting. Physician and poet, Lewis Thomas, in his book The Medusa and the Snail, wrote about the effort to figure out just exactly what ‘the self’ was, saying:

“I have had more selves than I can possibly count or keep track of, and sometimes they are all present at once, clamoring for attention, whole committees of them, a House Committee, a Budget Committee, a Grievance Committee, even a Committee on Membership, although I don’t know how any of them ever got in. No chairman, ever, certainly not me. At the most I’m a sort of administrative assistant. There’s never an agenda. At the end I bring the refreshments.”

This, of course leads me to call to mind Walt Whitman’s assertion “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large. I contain multitudes.” In short, our project this morning is to recognize that we are dynamically vast. We are both dynamic and growing, and there are multitudes of identities contained within this ‘self’ that I call “me”.

Allow me to offer a guiding principle for this journey. Something not as profound as what the philosophers have offered, but hopefully something that is enough of an opening to spur your own further exploration. My guiding principle is this: pursue this inquiry into your self with the style and rigor of the scientific method – even though, there is no way it can be a scientifically valid pursuit. The primary reason such a line of inquiry cannot be scientific is that the self is a purely subjective perspective.

Many of these Personality Inventories such as the Enneagram and the Myers-Briggs, are considered pseudoscientific because they are subjective and not grounded in the scientific process. They are not replicable, they make unfalsifiable claims, they rely on confirmation bias and subjective input, and are not open to evaluation or refutation from outsiders. This is not to say they lack value or cannot lead a person to understanding and insight. It simply means it is not science while being at risk of seeming like science.

For many years, Astrology was considered on a par with medicine, astronomy, alchemy, and meteorology (according to Wikipedia), a perspective not challenged until the 19th century and the adoption of the Scientific Method by the majority of academics and intellectuals of the western world. Today, Astrology is denigrated as unscientific.

My suggestion is to try any tool available to you in the pursuit of self-knowledge, to do so with the methods science uses: make hypotheses, rely on experience and logic, test ideas and be willing to reach some conclusions but don’t cling to them when new evidence contradicts those old conclusions. Just know that it is all happening in the subjective realm. Your personality, your essence, is not something to be corroborated by peer review. Your resulting behaviors can be corroborated, but the ‘self’ is by definition subjective.

It’s like this: I took one of these tests and it told me I am an introvert. In considering this, I agree with that assessment. And yet from time-to-time people are surprised to learn that about me. I am gregarious and outgoing in many group settings. “You must be an extrovert,” I’ve been told. But my personality is not something to be corroborated by peer review. It is subjective. You can’t tell me I am not an introvert. You can say, “Are you sure you are an introvert? Your behavior suggests otherwise.” And then we can have an interesting conversation about it in which we can each explore more deeply of our self-awareness. 

Remember what Lewis Thomas and Walt Whitman offered: while we may reduce the ideas down to a word or two (introvert, extrovert) – the ideas remain vast and multitudinous. And remember what May Sarton and others offered: it is a process of becoming, we evolve and grow, we live into ourselves. Our lives, our experiences impact who we are. It is well documented that our personalities are a product of our genetics and our environment together. The answer to the old argument of Nature vs. Nurture turns out to be: both.

I was attending a conference last week on Revolutionary Love. This is a national conference centered around liberal religious values in the public sphere. One of the presenters, Mickey Scottbey Jones was talking about the role of grief in the work of creating justice. She referred to an old Christian hymn about the Refiner’s Fire. The experience of the Refiner’s Fire, she reminded us, is different than that of other fires. Other fires will only damage you; they will cause destruction and injury, trauma. But the Refiner’s Fire burns away the impurities. Grief, she said, can be like a Refiner’s Fire. In the Refiner’s Fire the impurities are burned away and you become more truly you.

We have experience that bring our true self more clearly to the front in our living. The Velveteen Rabbit (our story from this morning) suggests we become more truly ourselves through being worn away a bit, through being loved into our true form. It is an example of how our experiences can impact and alter our personalities, can shape who we are and how we become ourselves. One of the conclusion Lewis Thomas reached in that bit about all the committees inside in terms of “the Self,” other than it feels like a committee of selves competing, is that “the Self” can only be understood in the context of the world. Who you are is caught up in the context of everything going on around you.

Are you inventive, efficient, or risk-avoidant? Are you curious, confident, or compassionate? I have found the exploration invigorating. Some of these personality inventories have given me valuable feedback on my temperament; about how I am approach being a parent, being a pastor, being a person. I don’t agree with everything every test has told me, but it has all be grist for the mill to learn more about myself. In turn, a deeper self-awareness has revealed for me a richer awareness of others. All this has helped me continue to grow and become myself. “All fuses now, falls into place” May Sarton tells us. “From wish to action, word to silence, / My work, my love, my time, my face / Gathered into one intense / Gesture of growing like a plant.”

In a world without end,

May it be so.