Friday, September 19, 2014

Beginning of Salvation

You must discover yourself in the wrong before you can reform yourself. Some boast of their faults. Do you think that the man has any thoughts of mending his ways who counts over his vices as if they were virtues? Therefore, as far as possible, prove yourself guilty, hunt up charges against yourself; play the part, first of accuser, then of judge, last of intercessor. At times, be harsh with yourself.
-- Seneca the Younger
What happens when you suddenly realize that you were wrong, rude, stubborn, mean, ignorant, irrational, insensitive, or careless? Do you acknowledge your mistakes and resolve never to repeat them or do you deny their very existence? Do you yank the weeds out of your garden or allow them to choke out the flowers?

"The knowledge of sin," said the philosopher Epicurus, "is the beginning of salvation." At least it should be. For most people, the knowledge of sin is nothing more than an opportunity to practice denial and willful ignorance.

You'd think we would be relieved to discover our flaws. How is anyone supposed to improve if they never discover where they need improvement? How is anyone supposed to grow if they ignore every opportunity to do so?

The answer is simple: they're not.

Few deny that self-improvement is a worthwhile pursuit. No one wants to get worse at something. No one wants to go backward in life. Whether you're an athlete, parent, artist, carpenter, nurse, or salesperson, you should want to be the best--not the best in the world necessarily, nor even the best in your league, but rather the best you can be. In other words, you should want to reach your full potential. You should strive for excellence in everything you do, not to showboat or prove yourself better than others but because that's what you were made to do.

One way to be the best version of yourself is to build on the skills and positive qualities you already possess. People tend to have less difficulty walking this path. They understand that practice makes perfect, that hard work leads to results, so they train, study, and put in the hours.

But that's only half the job, and arguably, it's the least important half. No matter how hard you practice, no matter how good you get, your flaws and weaknesses will always hold you back.

Instead of focusing on what you can do better, why not figure out what you should stop doing? In case you haven't figured it out yet, we're back in "Know Thyself" territory here. In order to be excellent, you have to be ready to discover some unpleasant things about yourself.

I told my good friend this very thing and her reply was very insightful. She said, "I've been there before and I don't like the feeling. I don't like being exposed without my armor." What she calls her armor is actually her Ego, who fights off any and all uncomfortable revelations that come with authentic knowledge of self. What my friend doesn't know is that the skin beneath her "armor" offers more protection than the Ego ever will.

In fact, the Ego doesn't protect her at all: it protects itself. My friend just so happens to mistakenly identify the Ego as her authentic Self.

There's nothing like realizing that you've been a giant douche-bag for the majority of your life, especially if you spent those years believing you were a witty, charismatic, likable character. I'm not speaking generically here, folks. I'm talking from personal experience. When I write about knowing yourself and being mindful, I'm not preaching from on high. I'm in the trenches with you, my friends.

It's an ongoing and never-ending process.

Every night before bed, I reflect on the day's events like a detective investigating some petty criminal. I look for moments of selfishness, ignorance, insensitivity, and irrationality. Without fault, the process always uncovers some new flaw or questionable habit.

Face, meet palm.
The sting you feel in these situations is an unnecessary reaction. Unless you were being an asshole on purpose, why would you feel guilty? You were blissfully unaware of your moronic behavior. Now that you're aware of it, you can amend it.

These little revelations should bring relief, not shame or embarrassment. Each one is a lesson. Learn it and reduce your chances of backsliding. Do this over and over again. Yank the weeds out the moment they break ground and eventually they'll all but stop growing. You'll look back at the person you were a year ago with a mixture of wonder and relief.

You won't be a different person. To the contrary, you'll be more you than you've ever been. The authentic You--the reasonable, creative, loving You--will flourish. All the petty grievances, worries, grudges, and judgments are holding you back. Drop them and move on. You'll be thankful you did. 

Anyway, I had a nice little moment of douche-baggery at work just the other day. I belittled someone and dismissed their concerns without knowing it. I probably would've remained unaware too if it wasn't for my co-worker who just happened to overhear the exchange.

Now most of the time people don't tell you when you're being a jerk, or else they tell you in the worst possible way. Not my colleague. She very clearly, directly, and respectfully told me that I was being an asshole. I tried to justify my behavior. She listened and stated flat out that I was wrong.

I went back to my desk and mulled it over. Of course my colleague was right. I had been insensitive, inattentive, and dismissive. That wasn't my intention, of course, but it was the end product nonetheless. So I apologized to the person I had mistreated and when I ran into the colleague who had pointed out my thoughtless behavior, I thanked her too.

"What for?" she asked. I explained to her that she had been right--I had been an asshole--and that I probably wouldn't have realized it without her.

She was flabbergasted. "Most people have a hard time admitting that kind of stuff," she said.

Which is both true and a shame. We're all capable of self-awareness. We're all capable of dissolving the Ego and being free of psychological constraints. Like anything else, it takes practice and dedication.  It means stepping out of your comfort zone and exposing yourself to sometimes scary and often uncomfortable truths.

The payoff, though, is well worth it. It's nothing short of freedom--freedom from insecurity, aimlessness, and discomfort. You become at home in your body and mind.

You become you, which is the first and most important step to finding true, lasting Happiness.

/rant over 

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