Know Thyself: A Personal Essay

“Know thyself” as applied in my life, an essay from years ago, with an update.


Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

The admonition “know thyself” comes to us from the ancient Greeks; it is a translation of the words displayed at the entrance to the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi. Also pointing us in this inward direction is the audacious claim by Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” The existentialists say, in essence, that we are forced by our very situation to choose who we are to be, that is, to “choose thyself.” Finally, the psychologists of the human potential movement advise us that it is fundamental to our mental health to go beyond mere self-knowledge, to “accept thyself.”

As I have encountered these ideas throughout my life, I have tried to put them into practice, by reading, writing, self-observation, and thinking, and I have arrived at some conclusions about myself which seem to me important and which may be helpful to others who seek to follow the ancient advice. I will discuss these conclusions under three heads: the rat room, the ocean within, and choose joy.

The Rat Room

I have starving and plague-ridden rats within the walls of my mind. They most often come out at night while I am trying to sleep. Their feet scrabble on the bare wooden floor as they fight, hissing and squealing, the bigger and stronger rats trying to eat the smaller and weaker. In the center of the rotting floor is a trap door that is always locked. What is below is completely unknown except that it bangs against the trap door and howls in an unearthly voice.

These rats are the memories of the crimes, cruelties, ingratitudes, humiliations, injustices, and deprivations I have committed, as well as those I have suffered. These are beyond counting. The thing under the floor represents the hates, lusts, and longings of the id, the crimes and audacities that I will not permit myself to commit.

The Ocean Within

The second important conclusion I have come to in my quest for self-knowledge is that, in addition to the rat room, I have within a pure, aquamarine ocean of unfathomable depth; on this ocean “I” float, observing what comes up from below. I cannot see very far below the surface, only occasionally glimpsing a murky shape that may or may not become clear: half-formed thoughts and memories.

This “ocean within” came to me as a vision of awe-inspiring power. I have subsequently interpreted it as a glimpse of my unconscious mind, the source of all my daily thoughts, actions, and choices. On the surface of the ocean is where “I” seem to be, but I know that this part is a mere observer, an eye without a thought of its own, an eye that has no control over what comes to the surface. In essence, I am my unconscious mind, I am not the eye; and I don’t think it matters that nothing in this picture can be labeled “free will.”

Of course, most people in the United states take it for granted that they make choices consciously, and that this is free will, but this model of the mind has been abandoned by most cognitive scientists. Introspection persuades me that the scientists are correct; I find that I recognize choices that have occurred, I do not and can not consciously make them. This conclusion is not easy to accept, and I am not in a position to demonstrate its correctness; but I also believe that it is not particularly important to daily life. I consider it a technical detail: I make choices, but how I define “I” is mostly academic.

Choose Joy

However, the final conclusion of my attempt to know myself does have important practical consequences. I have learned that I am subject to moods, and to that my current mood has a large effect on what I consider to be reasonable or true. When I am in a bad mood I can find any number of reasons to believe bad things about myself and the world; And when I am in a good mood it is exactly the opposite.

Moods prime us to see more easily those things that tend to reinforce the mood. Neither mood provides always-reliable truth. If this is the case, then I am fully entitled to choose my attitude based on what I find works best for me.

Abraham Lincoln said, “People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” My reflection on moods leads me to accept this wisdom and to make every effort to choose joy. However, it’s undoubtedly easier to choose to be happy if one has, or can cultivate, a thick skin, reasonable expectations, a sense of humor, and the ability to enjoy small and common pleasures again and again.

In conclusion, these three ideas—the rat room, the ocean within, and the fact that happiness is a choice—seem to me to fit together not at all. The room is my “dark side,” a torment to me, and my guilty conscience is merely the largest of the many rats. The ocean within I see as a technical detail, a model of how the conscious and unconscious minds work together; but it is also a source of inspiration and satisfaction, a recognition of the vastness that is me, and it is my closest approach to a vision of God. That “happiness is a choice,” and not something beyond any possibility of control, seems to me the most important result of my attempts to “know myself.”

4/10/22:  I wrote the above probably fifteen years ago, and the story would be incomplete without an update.  Regarding “choose joy” and “the ocean within,” I have little to say; I have not significantly changed my opinion about either.  “The rat room,” however, I now see merely as a vivid historical curiosity.  I am rarely “tormented” these days about the bad memories.

Gestalt therapy provided the hint:  to deal with unpleasant thoughts, “go deeper into them.”  I have used this on rare occasions.  In this case, I wrote a book about all the “blunders, humiliations, and crimes” that I could remember having committed in my life.  I have posted a few chapters of this book on my blog, but the important thing was the writing, and have even given copies of the book to three friends to read because I consider it my “most important” writing.  But the mere writing has greatly relieved my anguish over how I have lived my life.  I recommend the practice to anyone who finds themself in a similar situation, i.e., having a guilty conscience.

I welcome comments and questions.

Copyright 2022 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved

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