REMER: Tackling the hardest subject

“Know thyself.” Inscribed at the Oracle at Delphi, it’s hard to know exactly what to make of the ancient aphorism — is it an invitation, a command, a challenge? We come into the world knowing nothing of anything. As we grow older, our knowledge of the world blossoms, but our self-understanding accumulates slowly. By the time we come to Yale, most of us can recite the quadratic formula and periodic table, but how many Yalies know the specific gravity of serenity or how to define success?

We often gain self-knowledge indirectly. When we investigate the external world in labs, we examine ourselves slantwise. Learning about the world is a way of learning how we can better to relate to it. The books we read and movies we watch can spark us to rethink our lives by forcing us to consider how we relate to the characters and scenarios they present to us.

Despite these possible avenues for self-examination, we never get much of a formal education in sorting through our feelings. As people uncomfortable with not knowing a surefire algorithm for resolving problems, it’s tempting to bury ourselves in academics, work, extracurriculars and TV marathons as a way to avoid confronting our innermost desires.

Even if we were given explicit instructions, the quest for self-understanding is hardly a cakewalk. Life constantly changes, and our yearnings ebb and flow along with it. On any given day, we experience countless flashes of irritation, lust, joy or sadness — sometimes prompted by the world, sometimes out of the blue. Many times, these stirrings don’t dovetail with our “true selves,” who we imagine we would be if we could remove ourselves from the tumult of the world.

Traditionally, self-knowledge has been associated with this kind of solitude. Aristotle and Plato preached the virtues of contemplation. The Romantics sang the praises of nature and solitary walks. Buddhists, Daoists and Hindus practice forms of meditation to cultivate inner awareness, and Christians, Jews and Muslims have long-standing traditions of asceticism.

As Yalies, we might throw in a spritz of meditation here and a yoga class there, but we’re too busy to engage in the sustained reflection our ancestors recommended. With lives filled with classes, meetings, lunch and dinner appointments, and more meetings, the idea of taking time to think about ourselves seems quaint and self-indulgent.

This is a problem — meditation and contemplation are essential for self-knowledge — but I think we should question the idea that turning inwards will magically create clarity. It assumes that the self is a harmonious whole and that this self needs to be dug out from layers of encrusted custom through a period of hermitlike isolation. Philosophers today talk about the “problem of other minds” like we could exist apart from other people. But we are social animals, and as psychological research has demonstrated, everyone has a little bit of the chameleon lurking within. The desires swirling within us are largely socially conditioned, and we can be different people in different social contexts. Perhaps this is why person comes from the Latin for “an actor’s mask.”

In Hamlet, Polonius declares, “To thine own self be true.” Using the traditional definition of the self and traditional methods of self-knowing, this might be impossible to fully achieve. We don’t live as atomic islands of individuality. We depend upon others. We swim in a sea of ideas, memories and traditions. Colleges like Yale exist because knowledge is a collective endeavor.

Truth springs from communion with others. Other people bring out different aspects of ourselves, like a clapper drawing out a bell’s hidden resonances. They often understand us better than we do ourselves: One of the best ways of sorting through the messiness of human existence is to mull things over with friends and family.

As in all things, balance is key. The truth lies somewhere in the middle; we need community, but we also need time alone to recharge and become attuned to the quiet voice that speaks within us. Spring break offers us the perfect opportunity to reevaluate our choices, to rebalance ourselves. Have we structured our non-vacation lives to include both quiet contemplation and time to connect with friends and loved ones?

We must also bring aspects of vacation into the school year. Yale is hectic, but we must build time into our daily routine to replenish our energies and tackle the most difficult subject — ourselves — head on.

Scott Remer is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact him at scott.remer@yale.edu.

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