A Dose of Self-Awareness

Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of Rome in the second century and in his position became one of the most powerful people on the planet.  But even in his position as emperor he was able to find ways to remain humble and to look at other men in a way that elevated them. He reminded himself of the areas where he needed to grow, and he focused on his own faults more than he looked for faults in others.  He wrote about his beliefs of self-awareness in his book Meditations, giving us an insight into his practice of self-reflection.

 

When looking at himself relative to other people Aurelius wrote, “consider that thou also doest many things wrong, and that though art a man like others; and even if thou dost abstain from certain faults, still though hast the disposition to commit them, though either through cowardice, or concern about reputation or some such mean motive, thou dost abstain from such faults.” He uses this section to explain that we can never elevate ourselves above others if we are truly practicing self-awareness and if we are able to open our minds to see the world from multiple perspectives, including the perspectives of those who we deem to be in error.

 

Aurelius is encouraging himself to recognize that he shared many of the same faults that he saw in other people, and he used this recognition to keep himself from making the mistake of placing himself on a pedestal above others. By not placing himself on a moral high ground and by not elevating himself beyond the rest of humanity, he was able to better understand the lives and decisions of those around him. He was able to recognize that he had the same desires and wishes to make decisions that he would criticize in others, and this awareness helped him to participate with others and connect with them in a deeper manner.

 

If we fail to build self-awareness into our lives then we will likely place ourselves above others and begin to look at only our successes relative to the shortcomings of others.  This places us in a world were we can never have true relationships with those around us, and instead of being able to help others, our ignorance will push them away in a firestorm of hypocritical advice giving. Aurelius’ practice of self-awareness is something we can incorporate into our own lives to help us grow, and to help those around us grow.

Recognizing Our Own Shortcomings

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote about the importance of turning inward and honestly judging our own character in a way that is intimate and helped us move our lives forward in a constructive manner.  Throughout his book Meditations he wrote of the importance of being self-aware, and provided notes about being socially responsible by becoming more intentional with our actions, and more honest in our thoughts.  He encouraged himself constantly to be humble and realistic about his abilities and his own faults, careful to never raise himself above other men despite the fact that for 20 years he was one of the most powerful people on the planet. The way that he looked at himself relative to others is summed up well in a quote from Meditations,

 

“When thou art offended at any man’s fault, forthwith turn to thyself and reflect in what like manner thou dost err thyself; for example, in thinking that money is a good thing, or pleasure, or a bit of reputation, and the like. For by attending to this thou wilt quickly forget thy anger, if this consideration is also added, that the man is compelled; for what else could he do? Or, if thou art able, take away from him the compulsion.”

 

The important thing for Aurelius during the times when we see faults with other people is to recognize ways in which we share those faults or ways in which we have similar shortcomings in our own lives.  He encourages us to look inward at our selves rather than to put ourselves on a pedestal above others. When we see the faults in others and are blind to our own failures we limit our growth and build a false sense of exceptionalism in our lives.

 

Aurelius’ quote is similar to a quote I wrote about from Colin Wright in December of last year,

 

“On a personal level, outrage makes us feel superior. By becoming indignant, we’re drawing a line in the sand and declaring ourselves to be on the right side of a given issue. We’re saying, ‘How horrible this situation is, and how capable am I of declaring right and wrong, and passing judgment on those involved!’”

 

Aurelius explains the ways in which we can overcome the feeling of outrage that builds in us when we see others acting in a negative way. Their faults can be taken as personal insults or moral failures, and it is far more tempting to become outraged than to recognize that we share the same or similar shortcomings in our own lives. Failing to see our own faults and allowing ourselves to build a sense of outrage gives us the chance to tell ourselves how great we are, how correct our world views have become, and how much better we are than other people in society. It feels great to be outraged and to talk about our superiority over others, but it limits our interaction with other people and prevents our society from being able to join together to become better.

 

As emperor Aurelius had no shortage of opportunities to let himself build on outrage and feelings of superiority, but what he instead reminded himself in Meditations is that he could not place himself above others because in doing so he would become blind to the reality that he and all people make the same mistakes.  He was more focused on using self-awareness and reflection to grow and make the world better than he was on building his fame and influence by denigrating others.  Recognizing our shortcomings and where they come from can help us have conversations with others about the same failures and about ways in which our society encourages (or does not punish) those failures. Avoiding outrage and understanding our errors helps us become more human and helps us connect with others so that they may avoid the same shortcomings in their lives.