The voyage of self-discovery. Just don’t.

Maybe I just have an unusually dull psyche, but I’ve never feld the desire to “find myself” or engage in “self-discovery” or whatever it is the introspective, “seeking” sort call what they do.  Learning more about God, the universe, or mankind sounds interesting, but learning about myself?  What is there to know?  It seems that people who do go exploring themselves–through travel, psychoanalysis, adultery, or whatever else–never come back from the exploration with any interesting findings.  It seems that deep inside ourselves are desires, and the best you can hope for is to learn more about your desires and what gratifies you.  I actually have some Cartesian-style doubts about whether it’s really possible to have a desire and not know about it.  Suppose it is.  What good would come from unearthing new desires?  Having been unearthed, I would presumably start to feel their pull, meaning it would be harder for me to satisfy myself than now, when these unconscious desires don’t trouble me.  Not to mention that some of the desires that psychoanalysis is supposed to draw out are the sort of things one may never licitly gratify.

Really, though, my big suspicion is that all of this self-discovery is really self-construction.  Why imagine that my personality is some fixed essence (a gross error in the problem of individuation) waiting to be uncovered?  Enough “experimenting” to see if I have a desire for certain things might well create a desire for those things where none existed before.  Wouldn’t it be better for me to think about what my personality should be (invoking, necessarily, an external standard), and using my self-constructing energies to build that personality?

9 Responses

  1. The problem is that “self-discovery” can mean either of two things. It can mean a rather repellent form of self-indulgent navel-gazing, or it can mean coming to a better appreciation of yourself *and* your destiny and place in the order of things. As to the latter, I’d recommend going on a retreat, if you haven’t been on one recently.

    In reply to the question “What is there to know?”, the answer is undoubtedly “More than you think”, and it’s not all Freudian sex stuff.

  2. I think there are, essentially, two paths of self-discovery. Following the first, one discovers a self that is vastly more interesting and wonderful than one had ever imagined. This is, of course, the Primrose Path, and it leads to Hell–at least to hell for anyone thereafter forced to listen descriptions of the discovered self.

    Following the second, one discovers a self that is in many ways less interesting, wonderful, and capable than one might have hoped. This path has byways that lead to despondency, and from there to despair and Hell, but the main track is safe and salutary. This is because the self that is discovered is thereafter changed, not realized or advertised.

    Here’s one way to tell which path you’re on. I you’re growing less concerned with what other people think, you’re on the first path, toward a more subjective view of the self. If you’re growing more concerned, your on the second path, toward a more objective view of the self. (I’m not talking about strategies to impress or enchant other people. Being concerned with what other people think is simply asking, for example, if anyone besides one’s self finds one’s jokes funny or one’s company agreeable.)

  3. I should qualify the above. There is a form of self-knowledge that is useful: knowledge of one’s own strengths and weaknesses (as in both what one’s talents are and aren’t, and what temptations one has a particularly hard time with). That kind of knowledge doesn’t come from introspection, though, but from confrontation with the outside world.

  4. I’ve been thinking some more about this. I think that self-discovery should be seen not as an end in itself, but as a means to the end of self-knowledge (a commodity which is more difficult to acquire than one might think). Self-knowledge is essential not only to functioning in human society but in realising one’s ultimate goal, which for a Catholic is participating in the supernatural life of the Holy Trinity. The pagan Greeks knew this intuitively – gnóthi seauton, and all that. Mind you, I don’t think they’d have thought much of “Eat, Pray, Love”.

  5. I don’t entirely disagree, but I wonder how you’d integrate that with the Christian model of the contemplative life.

  6. Hi Reggie,

    I’m interested in this distinction between self-discovery and self-knowledge. Could you expand on the difference?

  7. I guess this is the salient part of your post:

    “people who do go exploring themselves–through travel, psychoanalysis, adultery, or whatever else–never come back from the exploration with any interesting findings”

    This suggests to me that such people are merely engaged in sensation-seeking, or trying to dispel the boredom of their lives. They fit into the first category that I referred to in my original post. They see the journey as the destination. They see *themselves* as the destination and the object of the exercise.

    I don’t claim to be delivering any profound insight here, but when I was younger I was taught that “God made me to *know* Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.” It’s surely elementary that knowing someone else – whether it’s your wife, your friend, or your Lord – and entering into a relationship with them demands first knowing yourself. So the purpose of “self-discovery” is not self-indulgent navel-gazing. Rather, it’s a means to the higher end that we should all be striving towards.

    I’m still working on it, and I fully expect to be doing so till the day I die.

  8. I think Reggie is describing classical Christian repentance or conversion. One cannot understand one’s need for change, and then one’s need for Christ, without some real knowledge of one’s true state and condition. Self-knowledge is integral to knowledge of sin, and knowledge of grace. And by grace we “discover” a new self in Christ. This second birth, however one chooses to describe it, is self-discovery on an epic scale.

  9. I’ve never feld the desire to “find myself” or engage in “self-discovery” or whatever it is the introspective, “seeking” sort call what they do…..learning about myself? What is there to know?

    Amen. People already know themselves. Duh. The quest for so-called “self discovery” is IMHO a cover for indulging in something else.

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