I have become a little bit addicted to the lifehacker website even though a large proportion of the topics they cover don’t necessarily apply (appeal?) to me. However this article, Look at Yourself Objectively, caught my eye, a repost of something Aaron Swartz had written as part of his Raw Nerve series. As you may know Aaron was an influential internet activist and key principal in many of the technologies that we take for granted today. Tragically he took his own life last week.
For those of you who have read my mainly earlier stuff, you will be aware that one of the key themes I have danced with over the years is that of identity and what it means. I have used metaphors, memories, stories and poems to try and define the ongoing, evolving relationship I have with the concept of self-identity, and what it means to be a better me.
Aaron quite superbly defines the problems with understanding one’s self; reducing the issue to (loosely) these key themes – discomfort with the truth, the inability to accept responsibility for one’s faults/actions, the ease with which we perpetuate, evolve and act upon our illusions, the inability or unwillingness to measure ourselves as we measure others.
His solutions suggest other complimentary themes that can be difficult to contemplate. Look up, Not Down suggests, quite rightly, that we often look down on others worse than us as a measuring stick, rather than being aspirational and looking to those better than us. In many ways he talks about the less wholesome aspects of human nature, which are easily extrapolated into the worst and vilest behaviours we are apt to display (a topic for another day).
So, in recognising that I am, generally, a better person than I was several years ago (at least, I hope so), I arrive at a place where I wonder at the basis on which I make that judgement. I have ever been careful to make sure that the measure for myself is myself. But how much of that is amplified? How much of what I dislike about myself is bound in emotion and distance? Have I been honest enough with myself? God knows I have tried, and it has often been a painful process. But I am still blind to myself, and occasionally things or people happen that highlights this.
To quote and borrow from George Carlin’s famous phrase:
Don’t just teach your children to read…
Teach them to question what they read.
Teach them to question everything.
This is the crux of it. As a species, culturally, socially and individually, we are ill-equipped to understand this, and the processes by which we continue to define ourselves. We are discouraged, and discourage ourselves, from questioning and testing the truths upon which we stand, and the mechanisms by which we came to them.
In the effort to be a better me, I cannot just rely on the differences between me then and me now, but on understanding how I came to judge and value those two individuals in such different ways. I have to understand that the values and systems of the context within which I find myself (society, social groups, etc) are not necessarily representative of mine, no matter how much they may define the aspects of self, with all its attendant behaviours, perfections and flaws, that are displayed to it. And that I am not alone in that.
To be objective about myself, I need to be objective about everything. To be objective is to be uncompromising, to myself and to all those around me. As much as I may embrace that, would anyone else?