Know Thyself—Say what?!
By William Franklin
Someone important said, “Know thyself.” Someone else said, “To thine own self be true.” And Davy Crockett said, “Be sure you’re right, then go ahead.” And my Cub Scout Handbook said, “Be square and obey the law of the pack.”
And of course I want to be sure I’m right (so that I can go ahead) and I do want to know myself (a little bit maybe...depending) and, honestly, this seems very important: To thine own self be true (if I only knew what it meant). So yes, I would like to know who I really am in a deep-down-inside-of-me way. If I could, I would. The whole thing sounds great. But I can’t think of anything harder.
Life doesn’t come with a good set of instructions. What instincts I have are faint at best and at worst cause trouble. And self-knowledge for me wasn’t low hanging fruit. I couldn’t shop for it or make it or bake it. And so, though I loved Davy Crockett, his little motto, once I started reading the existentialists, made me realize I was putting way too much pressure on myself and that, in the final analysis, his motto was a bitch.
Most people are running blind, that is the human predicament by the way, and if we knew what we were doing we’d be gods according to my high school lit class. We start, according to John Locke, as blank slates, (later we get a tattoo), then we go on the prowl, looking for something to do or get. The best of us will do and get at a fairly mediocre level because we start out blank and therefore without a clue. Even Davy Crockett, as cunning as he was, was doomed by his particular blank slate.
So, not a little resentful, in my letter to Davy I said, “Dear Davy Crockett, you said I should be sure I was right. How was I supposed to do that? You left that part out. You started out with ‘be sure’, as in ‘Hey, seven-year-old kid, be sure you’re right.’” So Davy Crockett, hero that he was, didn’t help me with the important stuff. He laid a version of the ‘know thyself’ pressure trip on me but gave no clues as to how to do that. Then he went to Texas and got shot.
I’m still all in when it comes to self knowledge. But the stuff they’ve come up with to help me understand myself is just scary. And what about all that happens inside us that we can’t see? How are we going to know about that? I’ve never been good at tracking what’s invisible, I always had problems with what’s mutable and when I get to trying to explain the ineffable, I’m a bust.
But of course there are things we can know and should know that aren’t too much trouble. Everyone should know their address if they have one, I should think. And if you have an ATM card you should know your pin number. Those things are doable and there’s nothing mystical about them. I also think it’s wise to keep the list short though I know it’s a human impulse, once a list is started, to make it as long as possible. And I wouldn’t mind that as long as self-knowledge isn’t on the list.