Recently, I had a falling out with someone who told me in parting that they could, at the very least, always count on me to look out for myself. Not look after. Not take care of. Look out. As in, that ball is about to hit your head. Look out. Engage your defenses.
While I didn’t fight this, I can’t forget it, because weeks after the conversation I still find myself struggling to work through all the bitter complexities of the statement. Putting my needs first — is that not a base element of personhood? In the moment, I thought I was acting on what I knew about myself, what I knew about what I wanted. The swell of regret crept in, first slowly and then all at once. So pervasive was the doubt then, the feeling that I knew nothing about what was good for me. What happens when we think we know ourselves?
I don’t entirely know what is with the always randomly felt and forever forceful urge to be on my own, to ensure the fewest tethers — this is what I was acting on, what the plaintiff was referring to. Even when any sort of relationship seems to be going well, even if I’m with someone who I think is good for me, the urge still comes. Could my actions be driven by a questioning of what I feel I deserve? Moving through life acting on these defenses has always felt like acting on the opposite of principle, a shield against what may or may not be a true self, an unlovable self.
There’s an important difference in connotation between taking care of and looking out for oneself, it seems; while the former is often touted as a necessary, emotionally conscious act of fulfilling one’s own needs, the latter is rife with defense and paranoia — looking out as if always on guard, watching, waiting.
Solitude feels safe, but also, crucially, not always what I imagine it to be. Solitude is not always a night to yourself in a closed bedroom exhausting the playlists or reading the books or watching the movies, the ones you have already seen. Sometimes, it’s lying restless in the dark and wishing you could go back and change it all. Sometimes solitude is just loneliness disguised in the thick manifest of expectation.
Last winter — and it always happens in winter — I experienced a bout of loneliness I had imposed on myself, like purgatory I felt I deserved. I kept wishing to be with someone, but then as soon as I was, reality was never what I imagined it to be: They sat in a chair at my desk instead of the corner of my bed, kissed me coming right instead of left and without the proverbial “spark” that Seventeen magazine had always promised would accompany kissing. It was imperfect and overwhelming and when the night ended, I would think back through every moment, what I had said, what I didn’t say. What I did do, what I didn’t. I had hardly tried to enjoy it.
I feel as though I’m full of sickly contradictions, seeking and wanting this solitude while also wishing it didn’t have to be the case — wanting to be around nobody and everybody at the same time. Feeling ambivalence and even apathy about some things one minute, and then total fervor the next. Because as much as I hate to admit it, I don’t know myself nearly as well as I think I do.
It’s 2013 and a tired waiter is taking my family’s order at dinner. Asks if we would like drinks. I shake my head, declining, and my mother laughs, ordering something for me anyway, claiming,
“Taylor, sometimes I know you better than you know yourself.”
She would go on to explain, “Once our drinks arrive and you don’t have one with your meal, you’ll want mine.” This presumption always bothered me, and not only because she was right, but because she had confidently surmised that knowing one pattern of behavior indicated that she knew my whole self. She wasn’t really saying that, but that’s how I saw the explanation then, and still see it now. She could have said that she, as both my mother and someone who was not me, saw patterns that I could not, or would not, admit to. But I was 13 and my mother prefers maxims.
A cautious desire to understand what drives our perceptions of ourselves has dogged me ever since. We are presupposed to believe that if we know ourselves, we are well off — we have placed ourselves in a position to succeed. Once we are familiarized with our own styles of learning, behaving and feeling, it then follows that we can feel at peace with what we have experienced and felt and what we will experience and feel. These are possibilities, the books and movies and songs have said, where it is both possible and beneficial to know ourselves. But let’s not pretend that there aren’t limits, or that we haven’t already bought into its warped promise.
What have I already bought into? Perhaps it’s not just solitude that I seek, but an escape from being my own spectator. Maybe all these years of journaling have convinced me that if I’m able to articulate precisely how I feel, down to the tight clamp of an impulse, I can predict how any given situation might impact me. So maybe I’ve deluded myself.
Am I just a combination of predisposition, expected presentation of personality and actual desires, of which I have not even the slightest clue how much each factor is divided? And is that fine?
I take a Myers-Briggs test. I take an Enneagram test. Their result pages show me bite-sized pieces of information about who I am and why, my strengths and weaknesses, and as nice and neat as this information presents itself, I’m hesitant. It’s come too easily, I feel. Only 20 or 30 thoughtful yet still general questions, and suddenly I’m known?
Philosophy and its concerns about the nature of the self have always interested me — its competing strains of thought, each on a determined search for answer and reason, while also making it clear that any definitive conclusions about human nature and our world cannot truly exist.
A most distrustful strain of philosophy, which has both intrigued and terrified me ever since I’ve come across it, is solipsism, first recorded by the Greek presocratic Gorgias. Solipsism is the theory that if the outside world and other’s minds cannot be known, the self is all that is sure to exist. Others, such as Anita Avramides of Stanford University, define it as, “the problem of other minds.”
John Horgan, a journalist best known for his 1996 book “The End of Science,” elaborated on this idea in Scientific American, arguing, “As crazy as this proposition seems, it rests on a brute fact: each of us is sealed in an impermeable prison cell of subjective awareness.”
Horgan continues, “Even if you reject solipsism as an intellectual position, you sense it, emotionally, whenever you feel estranged from others, whenever you confront the awful truth that you can never know, really know another person, and no one can really know you.” I find the solipsism problem to be a useful, even if sad, way of defining the loneliness in being yourself.
It is written on the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, “Γνῶθι σεαυτόν.” Know thyself. It was then Shakespeare who wrote in his play “Hamlet,” “To thine own self be true.” These famed men realized the virtues in learning about yourself, in knowing your tendencies: Break bad patterns, feel more comfortable in various situations, plan and predict with accuracy. But these benefits, while admirable, don’t constitute knowing yourself. Maybe they do, in the limited sense. But not fully.
In E.M. Cioran’s “The Trouble With Being Born,” a collection of short, nihilistic philosophical musings, he wrote, “Once we appeal to our most intimate selves, once we begin to labor and to produce, we lay claim to gifts, we become unconscious of our own gaps. No one is in a position to admit that what comes out of his own depths might be worthless. ‘Self-knowledge?’ A contradiction in terms.”
It is incredibly difficult, if even possible, to see ourselves objectively. I’ll always have motives, and I can’t pretend to ignore them, or pretend they’re not pressing. The more I think about it, the more that I feel I can conclude that this delusion of self-knowledge is just human element, a completely natural response to the complex layers of our existence. I then wonder: Is the search for reason — the existence of philosophy — just a symptom of living?
There are, admittedly, parts of us that are easy to know — why we are uncomfortable in the face of affection, why we prefer outgoing people as friends, why we aspire to be certain things — those are the easy things, things which give us the impression that we do or could know ourselves. As Ali Smith would say in her best book, “Autumn,” “That’s the thing about things.”
Know this: There are hundreds of thousands of different versions of yourself that exist in the minds of others, people you have loved, hated, wanted or met for only a minute. People that you lock eyes with on the bus or with whom you share notes in class, people that could forget you when out of the periphery, or who could remember you until they die. Versions that if ever presented to you, may be unrecognizable.
There are hardly any definitive conclusions here — this is exactly what I’m trying to get at. You can know yourself, but never completely, or properly, and at long last, I think that’s just fine. It’s still a worthwhile pursuit. There’s the point: pursuit. Because no matter how many details of my early life I untangle in therapy sessions, no matter how much I try to intellectualize my emotions in my journals, there remain those slippery, ineluctable, unattractive truths. Ones that I will never fully know or understand. I don’t mind them now as much as I used to.
Statement columnist Taylor Schott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.