This Socratic maxim is carved into the stone of the entrance to the Temple of Apollo, and it represents a philosophical quest that has challenged all of humanity since consciousness. The quest to know thyself — to understand who we are and why we are — is the greatest point in the state of being human which one can achieve. What good is having all the answers, all the money, all the success, if we don’t know who we are? If we don’t have an understanding of our true selves?
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about this quest because I’ve come to realize lately that I don’t really know myself. Of course, I can recite my Notre Dame introduction without a thought, or my response to the inescapable first question in every interview (“Tell me about yourself”). But when asked something far beyond that — something that goes deeper than this surface level, label-centric layer of myself — I’ve found that my mind goes blank.
How sad is that?
I think I — and probably a good amount of people — have begun to lose sight of who I am beyond the facets of myself which affect the way others perceive me. By “others,” I might mean my peers, recruiters, professors, interviewers, strangers, random people on social media or anyone outside of myself. My perception of who I am, I’ve come to realize, has been shaped for far too long by how I think others see me. Instead of asking myself these beyond-the-surface questions like what makes me happy or what makes me feel most alive or what I’m proud of myself for, I spend so much time berating myself with thoughts like:
“Why don’t I look like that?” “Why am I not smart enough?” “Why am I not good enough?” “Why am I not cool enough?” “Why am I not outgoing enough?”
I don’t totally blame myself for this, either. In a campus filled with incredibly talented, intelligent, superbly ambitious students chasing one accomplishment after the next, in a society inundated with platforms solely concerned with outward perceptions, in a world where achievement is the way to a good life — it’s easy to lose ourselves sometimes.
To realize that I don’t really know myself is scary. But maybe it’s not horrible. Perhaps to not know myself means that this concept of “self” isn’t static, and it’s not permanent. There’s a certain freedom in this realization. Tomorrow, I can wake up and decide to dye my hair if I wished to, start listening to a new genre of music, take a new path from my dorm to class, introduce myself to someone I don’t know. I’m beginning to realize (finally, two whole decades into life) that how I see myself is more important than this idea of Meg that exists in other people’s minds.
Maybe I don’t know myself, and maybe I never will. Perhaps nobody really knows themselves. Maybe “thyself” is not someone to know, but someone whom I should allow to live a full life not completely shackled by fear of how others perceive me. I don’t totally know myself, but I’m beginning to learn to like myself a little more.
Knowing thyself is hard. Maybe liking thyself is enough.
You can contact Megumi at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this Inside Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.