How We Know Ourselves
Today this banner was plastered on our garage door when I came home from breakfast with a friend. It was composed by my wonderful wife and kids as a way to celebrate my birthday. My initial reaction was gratitude for their willingness to invest some time to express their love to me. As I took the time to actually read it carefully, something else happened in me–I saw a challenge to my self understanding.
Knowing ourselves can be a difficult, and sometimes convoluted, pursuit. We may act differently at work, home, or out with friends. So which one of these is truly “me”? We may think we know our character, but then act in ways completely opposed to what we think we know of ourselves. We experience moments of emotion that we don’t quite comprehend. We consider the forces that have shaped us and wonder which ones are winning out. Truly knowing ourselves, in the depths, is something hard to get a hold of.
So when I began to truly read the banner, what struck me were a few of the words my family had written about me that were outside of what I expected. On a birthday (or Father’s Day) it is wonderful, but not fully unexpected, for a child to write “you’re the best dad ever” or a wife to write “so glad to be married to you.” After all, these are the sentiments of Hallmark cards and coffee mugs. They are wonderful, especially when you know they are heartfelt and honest, but they are not altogether unexpected. However, there were some things that were unexpected, and the fact that they were clearly carefully selected challenged me to consider if they were indicative of who I really am.
This was an important challenge for me because like many others, the things most difficult for me to accept about myself are the good things. I often readily acknowledge my shortcomings. I own my vices and blemishes, but doing the same with anything positive is something I don’t take on as easily.
My daughter wrote that I am jrenorise (generous). (There’s a part of me that will miss when she learns to spell all these words–I so enjoy her phonetics.) Wow, am I generous? I would readily accept the criticism that I can be selfish–often. I think it is true that I am often selfish. But my daughter says that I am generous. My son echoed that sentiment when he wrote (in his newly acquired cursive script) “always willing to do something for me.” And so I have to wrestle internally with the thought that knowing myself in a real way has to include more than only seeing myself as selfish.
My son wrote the word “fair”. I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say that before. But when he took the time to think of how he’d describe me, this is one of the words he chose. Is there room in my self-understanding to see myself as fair?
I struggle with accepting these things–a struggle that I often dismiss when my extremely supportive and encouraging wife names things she believes are true about me.
The point here is not to share these things about myself–I offer this only for the sake of illustration. The point is that one of the ways we can truly know ourselves is to receive the feedback (whether positive or negative) of the people who truly know and love us. This is especially true when the occasion arises for them to share feedback in a way that has clearly been thought through. I imagine I am not the only one who struggles to assimilate the positive thoughts of those we love into our self-understanding. But if we are to know ourselves rightly, this is an important step.