Know thyself,” commanded the inscription on the temple of Apollo at Delphi. This admonition has carried civilization far in the quest for knowledge and understanding of humanity, but its modern importance for individual self-knowledge should not be underestimated. In any society and in the university community particularly, the knowledge of oneself is essential for relationships and for freedom.
Despite the voguish conceptions of self-identification, one cannot simply will an identity into being. Our identity is defined and refined by our daily actions and interactions. It is dependent on the reception of our actions by others, but in a given community, a common public identity emerges. Furthermore, we ourselves can witness all of our actions, and it is by the totality of these actions that we must conceive ourselves.
Everyone tends to think he is aware of himself, but without conscious reflection and an attempt to see oneself from an external perspective, it is easy enough to be blind to the reality of one’s actions. When we fail to be reasonably self-aware, we fail those around us and ourselves.
Examples of people lacking self-awareness are myriad, from the simple to the grave, from the student in lecture who continues to ask questions despite the growing anger of the professor and the class to the president of the United States who extols peace yet by his actions makes war.
Someone who can’t or won’t acknowledge his own reality loses the trust of those around him. Bonds of relationship are weakened as interactions take on a sense of fantasy. Multiple people experience the same conversation or actions, yet one of them sees it completely differently from everyone else.
Sometimes this is just a matter of an intended compliment seen as a slight. Other times, though, our imagined motivations cloud our understanding of the effects of our actions. Motivated by ego, we think we are working for joint benefit.
In the university community, one goal is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the world, but in the modern, global environment in which we study, the connections we form with others are also important. Genius may be possible in a bubble of blindness, but interacting with others is not. Yale aspires to form an ideal mixture of people of different backgrounds, races, creeds and homelands for the very reason that our development is dependent on interactions with others. When we are blind to ourselves, the bonds of these interactions break.
The more significant problem of a lack of self-awareness is a loss of freedom to define one’s course in life. Self-awareness requires acknowledging all of the choices one makes, both explicit and implicit. It is through all of these choices that we progress through life and through them that we are defined.
As a simplistic example, imagine a student who has a paper due on Friday and spends each night during the week going out to concerts and parties and movies. On Thursday night, after the library is closed, his backpack is stolen with the book he needs to write the paper. The student is unable to complete the paper and blames the library and the thief. The student’s inability to complete his paper is the result of misfortune and theft by some other person, but his actions had an important role as well. It is easy, and perhaps comforting, to play the helpless victim, but to do so is to lie. If we do not carefully acknowledge our own reality, we are destined to view our world as one that we do not control.
True self-awareness engenders responsibility, and it is only with responsibility for our actions that we can be a part of a community or of a society. Beyond just allowing us to take part in society, self-awareness gives us a measure of control over our own future but gives us entire control over our own identity. While we cannot will our identity to be this or that, we define it through our actions. Hence, self-identification is not a fallacy, but it is achieved through action, not through mere thought or intention.
It is not always easy to acknowledge the identity that the sum of our actions defines, but acceptance into an interconnected community of individuals and the freedom of charting one’s own course demand it.