Like many things in Paganism, the instruction to ‘know thyself’ looks really simple at first glance, and gets more complicated the more you engage with it. How we establish who we are is one of the issues that has been keeping philosophers in paying gigs for a very long time. So to ‘know thyself’ you have to start out by deciding on what terms you will do that.
We might undertake to know our bodies through action and physical discipline, and that will also reveal to us facets of mind and character. We could use the tools of psychology to try and understand our minds, and introspection to become more aware of our emotions. We can seek the opinions and insights of others, or go into a process with our biographical history, our ancestral history as well. We can study the norms, assumptions and habits of our culture to see where we fit. We can take on cultural, philosophical or religious stories about who we are. Fallen or evolving, reincarnating, sinning, full of inner light, sparks of the divine or probably damned, we might also consider, in light of that, who it is that we want to be, as well.
As we wander through life, we pick up labels and stories about who we are, what we do, what we’re useless at and where we fit. Much of how this works depends on how you match with your culture. The gay child of fundamentalist monotheists will have a very different initial sense of self to the gay child born to fluffy hippy people. In some cultures, a set of behaviours will get you drugged and incarcerated, in others you would be respected as a magical person. Further, not all of the people who label us do so kindly, or accurately, so it is very easy to wind up with a set of labels that have nothing to do with who we are, and everything to do with the people who disliked us. Many cultures tell women that they can’t be leaders, sporting heroes, career people, great thinkers, or responsible for choices about their bodies.
I don’t think there’s a ‘pure’ untainted inner self that we can somehow find and get back to. We start with our genes, and perhaps a spirit that informs character (I’m unsure) but from the moment of arrival, experience teaches us stuff about who we are and where we fit, and because we are inherently communal animals, we internalise a lot of that. We learn that certain things are not for the likes of us, or we learn that some things are beneath us, and those influences can be subtle and far reaching.
The only thing to do, if you are not happy with the sum of yourself, is to unpick, unravel, try to understand, trace threads back to origins and work out what, of the things you have swallowed, you might be able to cough up and leave behind. Experiment with who you are, try thinking and acting differently, because change is always possible.
I had been given to understand that I’m not very practical – not safe with sharp implements, not capable of thinking technically. I was intimidated by power tools from an early age, which didn’t help. I spent most of my life thinking I had no skills for anything mechanical, technical or requiring a bit of engineering. In the last few years I’ve had more opportunities, and no one telling me I couldn’t… and it turns out that I can do a good deal more than I’d assumed. It also turns out that I’m especially good at taking things that are otherwise rubbish, and rigging them up to be useful.
That makes me something very specific…
That makes me a womble.