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Know Thyself

When I was a youngster, high school and college age, I was very much aware of the Greeks and Greek philosophy.  They seemed to weave themselves in among most of our studies.  It was a bedrock of education.

Today, I seldom hear references to them.  I wonder why.  Did they become old hat, outdated…so yesterday?


There was one expression from the Greeks which haunted me a bit as a youngster: “Know thyself.”  It’s a simple enough expression, and one could readily understand that recognizing who we are is certainly fundamental  to our understanding not only of ourselves but also of others.

In these two words we are commanded to a lifetime of work.

We begin our journey of self-understanding with a great handicap---all children, like early mankind in general, begin life with the understanding that they are the center of the universe.

As our lives progress, we are jostled by others pushing us down, aside, or up.  We are not alone, and it becomes apparent  the universe does not love us best.

Some of us take this revelation better than others.  To the fortunate comes the realization that it’s time to take stock---to do a self-inventory---to know ourselves.

If only it was as simple as it may sound.  Our egos scream that we are great, but “great” is not a useful expression in the world of self-evaluation.

It is our experiences that inform us of who we are.

We learn first about our physical abilities---from learning that our feet are…our feet---to running across the school ground racing against others.  It is a shock to most lads to learn that they are not the fastest among their contemporaries.   I remember vividly the day that no matter how much faster I willed myself to run, I could not keep up with several lads who sprinted ahead of me.  This was the first indication to me that perhaps I wasn’t a marvel of human engineering.  Of course, there were many opportunities which arose to reinforce for me that my body was not built for speed nor strength.  I accepted my physical limitations.  This is perhaps the reason I put very little emphasis on health or physical well-being.  The only time I regret not having greater physical abilities is when I play golf, but I look at it as a good opportunity for a butt whipping…which we all need occasionally.

Then we learn about our intellectual abilities---from the first jigsaw puzzle we try to put together to the GRE exam.  To say I began slowly in the intellectual race would not do my condition justice.  I was the only kid who missed the bus home on my first day of school.  In grade school I didn’t seem to grasp the concept of  gathering together in rooms with desks.  I tolerated it, but it seemed a waste of time.  When I was in the eighth grade, I had a teacher of math who was the real deal and pounded into me the basics of mathematics.   In high school and college I managed to get through my math and science classes without failing, but I had reached my intellectual peak in the fields in the eighth grade.  I accepted my limitations and realized that it was unlikely that I would become an engineer or architect, a couple of my early dreams.

Up to this point in my life, my “self-awareness” was principally based on elimination of things at which I wasn’t good.

What I became increasingly aware of as I progressed through my early years was that I was good at reading people.  This gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own characteristics as compared to others.

I would not trade my insight into people for all the talents I lack.  I watch people almost on a daily basis who are good people with good qualities, but can be fooled by people so easily.  My “insight” is, of course, fallible, but I trust it.

“Know thyself” is not a call for us to be self-absorbed.  It is not a lifetime call for us to take as many selfies as possible.  It’s a simple command for us to be aware of our weaknesses and strengths so that we can be  productive people, good citizens, and, hopefully, folks worth being around.