The quest for self discovery and the desire to emancipate oneself from ‘existential paralysis’ is an endeavour any person with the slightest trace of curiosity may face. That in mind, I deduce a fleeting hint of short-lived comfort to learn that those long hours spent boring holes through the fogged-up glass of the bathroom mirror, with that adamant, unflinching gaze at the perplexed reflection that reveals nothing but dubiety and incertitude, did not imply the lunacy I feared. For through the habitual practice of self-reflection and introspection, I had recognized the unwelcome profile of failure. But coupled with that came realization, that gazing down at my own navel would be fruitless in trying to distil the true answer to what it means to be human.
“He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living from hand to mouth.” With these words, Goethe may either be making an impressive attempt to galvanize us into taking up a philosophy course, or probably he simply handed us a spade and told us to dig deeper. Plainly, he implied the latter, so that’s just what we’ll do.
In the twenty-first century, at the epitome of moral, societal and cultural development, with boundaries of exploration widening and constraints on discovery dissolving expeditiously, to say it is hypocritical that we have hardly evolved as autonomic individuals, would be a pathetic understatement. When we sit down with the intention of unravelling the secret to our personal existence, our faculty of wonder and capacity to ruminate is constricted to our own milieu and ‘gazing down at our own navel.’ The means of turning the soul inside-out is methodically defined, at present, as plucking up the courage to invest a quarter of your salary in psycho analysis, a futile exercise, given the simplicity and explicit manifestation of the real true answer; the answer which poor neglected Goethe formulated nearly two centuries ago in the shape of a dozen, cherry-picked words: ‘outro-spection’.
Who am I? Upon hearing that question from, for instance, a fully grown college graduate you would be more likely to chuckle to yourself, than you would having heard it from a child. Naturally, this would be due to the understanding of the child’s indistinguishable sprit of inquisitiveness regarding the world it is oblivious to, compared to the ripened maturity of the adult. What many tend to overlook, is the shrouded reasoning: children are bestowed with the faculty of wonder, the ability to question limits and contravene explications, however as they mature, this deteriorates and the hazardous compliance with defined laws creeps in. The four walls of their community, their household and their vicinity begin to incarcerate them, until they eventually see their identity as something as rustic, unpretentious and defined as the inside of this very cage.
What all human beings with an unsatisfied, nagging curiosity must do to overcome the habit of gazing down at their navel, is to recapture the idea of stepping out of themselves towards a transcendent cause. Our perception of the ‘good life’ is contingent on the present; at this particular moment in time, the prevalent approach is living in the Now. This outlook may sound appeasing and pertinent to the current global scenario at first; however before you make any rash decisions, listen closely: the secret to the ‘good life’ is oriented in the past.
When Socrates talked about “knowing thyself,” he was indicating for us to look both inward as well as outward. Discovering cultures other than our own is imperative, as the only key to self-discovery lies in assimilating with people of extrinsic and alien characteristics to ours. And this is inevitable once we aboard the conveyer belt to our own past. By turning our attention towards these “three thousand years,” Goethe claimed we are unable to “draw on,” the coalescence of a purpose for our existence with our everyday proceedings will unconsciously eventuate.
The narrow view of human nature by humans themselves is hence, merely the result of centuries of detachment from the past, its roots and the wisdom behind its events. We are far more complex than predictable, formulaic hardware, programmed to labour till sundown, bring up half a dozen kids, secure a stable influx of cash, scribble down a will and then be committed to the dirt in the grave. There is far more to our identity than a three-word name imprinted on a label, or the inside of four incarcerating walls. Instead, there are generations of buried ancestry, irretrievable stories and bygone whispers silenced by both ignorance and the merciless wave of time. All of which can be unearthed, retrieved and amplified by resurfacing from the legacy of many hundred years of narrowness and blind compliance to our capabilities being pre-defined for us.
So the next time I look daggers at my reflection in the bathroom mirror, one thing is certain; it will not be intended to unravel the secret to my existence and the conception of human nature. It could just possibly be a pimple. But in such a circumstance there will be no comfort for my fear of lunacy.