What can we truly know about ourselves? Whatever I call myself depends entirely on who’s around me. Thus, I only seem anxious when others are calm. Any term used to describe me can be confirmed or invalidated by picking the right crowd to hang around. Is this knowledge? Or is it more “appearance by context”?
If no externally descriptive attribute can be called knowledge – because it is not stable, the opposite being equally true under different circumstances – I am left only with what refers to my heart. For example, if I touch fire I feel pain. This is absolute, and I would call the displeasure of such pain in that moment a kind of self-knowledge. The fire teaches me I didn’t like putting my hand there.
My limitations are not really knowledge, since I am constantly learning how to overcome them. I may feel I know my boundaries, but the flaw in this “knowledge” is that it refers to future actions, while the future partakes too much of the Unknown. Anything I may say about myself that references the future instantly becomes unsure, and I cannot ever claim it as self-knowledge.
Preference, however, has nothing to do with the future. It is of the essence of vagary – and yet is complete in its being. When something pleases me, that moment becomes the fulfillment of all past time, in that whatever has gone before led my soul to that condition of ecstasy. What happens afterward is anyone’s guess; and since only in the present can ecstasy be known, it is only in the present that anything of my self may be known. (I leave the understanding of “pleasure” to the reader, since what pleases the soul must be discovered individually).
We can know what uplifts the heart because it has nothing to do with what we do not know: that is, it can be known fully in the moment we don’t like something, even if a moment later we change our minds and decide to like it. It’s not the preference that we know, but the experience of liking or disliking it in that moment.
Not only does this invalidate every name I might apply to myself, it debars me from looking into the past, or projecting into the future, to learn who I am. Even in the present I am too variable – pleasure being such a fleeting thing – that it is not any particular state of being I “know”, but rather that very condition of being alive. I am not any thing, but simply am. This would seem self-evident, if not for the fact that I have also called other things knowledge.
If knowledge can only exist in the experience of being aware, what does it mean to the task of striving to “know thyself”? The primacy of awareness would imply that our present experience defines who we are. Thus even if all the conditions of my life describe me as “content”, I am only content in so far as I am content, without reference to externals. To connect with an earlier entry, this implies that self-knowledge is of a wholly different order than the definitions of self constituting the ego.
If nothing is true of myself until we experience it, it emphasizes the importance of considering our present state of being. How many plans are made for the sake of acquiring a name, and thus to “know who we are”? But if I am only what I am in the moment that I am, it changes the organizing principle of affairs to be what conduces to the experience of self I most hold with. My knowledge of self lies in the measure of my awareness of being alive; thus to waste precious hours in search of any other kind of knowledge is to lose my chance at the only knowledge available to me: that I am.
This reduces to a kind of pragmatism, in which my actions are measured by and aimed at whatever will lead to an experience of the good. It means there is no quality that adheres to things, perdurable and constant, but only an ineffable Quality to life, the experience of which is its marrow (see journal entries from the summer of 2003 on this theme).
If this is hedonism, let it be a spiritual hedonism, in that it is my soul I aim to please. But how to pleasure my soul? I must place its needs before all others to recognize what it attepmts to tell me through the medium of experience. If I can know this, perhaps I will know who and what I am; but if I do not know it, to what end should I direct my life?
Following our dreams
On a somewhat related note, my friend Sina Mossayeb recalled me to an excellent article others might appreciate, titled What Should I Do With My Life?, by Po Bronson. It addressed the question of how we choose what to do with our lives, and the obstacles that sometimes hinder us from realizing our dreams.