I am really fascinated by ideas of our personal narratives and how powerful the stories we tell ourselves can be. On some level I think we all understand this, and recently I have been thinking about the power of our narrative within political ideology. The Democratic Party seems to be criticized for creating a narrative where where people are hopeless and can’t make it without a little help. Conversely, the Republican Party seems to operate in a narrative where people can always pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they just try harder. I don’t think either of these simple narratives about how the parties treat people is really accurate, and it is not what I am actually writing about today, just a quick example of how narratives can drive so much of our beliefs and ideas.
A quote from Fernando Pessoa in his book The Book of Disquiet translated by Margaret Jull Costa shows the power of narrative, “The truly superior (and the happiest) men are those who, perceiving that everything is a fiction, make up their own novel before someone else does it for them…” What Pessoa is saying is that we can all recognize the power of narratives in our own lives, and create our own stories rather than try to live up to stories that other people have made for us. His ideas in this quote align with a lot of the Stoic ideas and thoughts that I try to live by. His quote acknowledges that we are under pressure from other people to be the person that other people want us to be and to achieve a picture of success created by someone else. Writing our own story, however, gives us the chance to be our own person and to pursue a life on our own terms.
“Since life is essentially a mental state and everything we do or think is only as valuable as we think it is, it depends on us for any value that it may have.” A painting is only as valuable as we decide it is. A car is only valuable if we all recognize it as such. Any given activity is only valuable if we decide it is a valuable way to spend our time. There are certainly things we can all recognize as more valuable than others based on the use, form, and function of the thing, but at the end of the day, nothing has inherent value just on its own unless we decide that there is a value attached to it. We should all be aware of the value we place in ourselves, the things in our lives, and how we live so that we can craft a story about who we are that creates meaningful value in our lives and in the lives of others.
The last couple of years for me have been a journey to better understand my thoughts, motivations, desires, beliefs, and assumptions. I began working on self-awareness after I realized that I did not fully understand the world and what was happening around me. Podcasts helped open my eyes and helped me see that there were many things that I was ignorant of and viewed from only one perspective. From that realization I began to see the importance of self-awareness. I have continued to make self-awareness a major focus in my life, and Marcus Aurelius echoes and guides my thoughts and feelings of reflection in his collection of writings Meditations.
“Those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy,” Marcus Aurelius wrote in regards to self-awareness. By not focusing on ourselves and by not looking inwards, we are allowing ourselves to move through life without guidance and direction. The way we think about the world and our position in the world is something we can change and control, but it is also something that can move and fluctuate on its own if we are not careful. Aurelius is encouraging us to master our thoughts and explore those parts of us which make us who we are.
A powerful metaphor that I came across to better explain the importance of self-awareness and reflection came from a young author named Paul Jun. In his book Connect the Dots, Jun described the following metaphor. Think of self-awareness and focus like a flashlight in a dark room. Your flashlight can illuminate a certain space, and the more narrow the focus of your flashlight the clearer the item you shine it at becomes. But while you are focused in one area, everything else is obscured. When you begin to take a step back and shine that flashlight at a greater area you will see things that were hidden before.
For me, this idea of self-awareness and shining a flashlight of focus on areas that had been dark to my conscious helped me better understand many of the expectations and pressures that I lived with. I thought deeply about what my ideas were regarding success, and where those ideas came from. I thought about what I expected myself to do as part of the identity I had developed for myself, and I thought about why I had those expectations. Through a journey of self-awareness I was better able to understand my own morals, values, and principles which gave me the ability to see what things fit in with who I wanted to be and allowed me to act accordingly.