This ancient Greek proverb, said to have been inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, has been attributed to various Greek sages and traced even further back to ancient Egypt. Fast forward a thousand and some odd years and we find Benjamin Franklin giving his opinion:
“There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.”
Maybe one reason it’s hard to know our selves is that, like a diamond, we are many-faceted. We catch the light on one plane and reflect it in a different direction. From one angle we look smooth and polished; from another angle we’re slopes and sharp corners. We can delight, and we can cut. But unlike a diamond, we constantly change, so it can be hard to describe our selves. Even if we do, our description can hardly be objective. Still, getting to know ourselves is a worthwhile endeavor, because no other travel companion is with us day in and day out for our entire life journey. We might as well welcome the self and do what we can to feel at home in our own bodies.
So what, then, is Self? In previous posts, we’ve considered three viewpoints.
- The individual self does not exist.
- The self is innately sinful.
- The self is innately good, special, and unique.
But there’s another view of self that’s worth considering, the newest iteration of self:
Some of us see self not as the mysterious inner depths of our being but as something we craft and post online for others to see and, hopefully, admire. (Perhaps for our own self to see and admire as well.) The social media culture thrives on self-branding, on sharing likes and dislikes, and on letting marketers know individual interests so that products offered to us and news popping up on our feeds are tailored to our particular self. As Adriana Manago, a researcher at the Children’s Digital Media Center in L.A., points out, in our online culture, friends become our audience, and our audience becomes our friends.
It’s tempting to see this image creation as a generational phenomenon, since social media has grown to its current size and influence only in the past couple of decades. But while there is obviously a generational component to this view of self, it’s not only younger generations who are creating images. Anyone posting on social media reveals an image that’s incomplete at best. Me included.
A few years ago, on the way to a writers’ conference, a friend and I were discussing author photos, debating whether or not we should get professional publicity shots. I pointed out the attractive photo of an author who was to speak at the conference. She was young, slim, and beautiful. I also mentioned that I would never be that young again – or that beautiful – even in a professional photo with wrinkles erased. How could any picture of me compete with her? (Okay, I know it’s not a competition. On the other hand, whose picture do we gravitate toward? Just sayin’.)
Anyway, my friend asked, “Have you actually met her?” No, I hadn’t. My friend simply nodded knowingly – and later introduced me to that author at the conference. Said author was obviously older than her photo and was no longer slim. Frankly, I would not have recognized her in person. And while there was a beauty about her, there was also an aloofness I had not expected. She had created an online image that my imagination had expanded on – in the wrong direction.
To some extent, we’ve always presented skewed images of ourselves in public. In the 1800’s, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Every man alone is sincere. At the entrance of a second person, hypocrisy begins . . .We cover up our thought from him under a hundred folds.” A hundred folds are not necessarily a bad thing. There’s value in following Granny’s advice, “Don’t air your dirty laundry in public.”
I sense that we’re still trying to find our way with this self-sharing thing. We’re told we should be transparent, but how transparent? How much is too much to reveal? Lots of us are wondering, but I’ve yet to hear a definitive answer.
So where are we in this examination of self? We have 1) a non-existent self, 2) self as sinful, 3) self as good and special, and 4) self as a brand. I suspect that most of us live in a mix of 2, 3, and 4. I know I do. But I’ve also come to believe a deeper truth about self:
5) Self is the human version of God’s “I Am.”
More on that next week. Meantime, I wish you well on this unmapped journey.
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Text © 2016 Karyn Henley. All rights reserved.
Photos courtesy morguefile.com.