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Th Myth of the Normal Family: Self-Awareness

For my tenth birthday, my parents bought me a pup tent and sleeping bag and suggested I spend more time away from home. “The fresh air is good for you,” my mother said. So I became a camper and spent the nights with my friends in the woods around Danville. There was a lovely little bend in the White Lick Creek where Kroger’s is now, right where the meat department is, where I would camp with Tim Hadley. I never go in Kroger’s without remembering that and thinking of Tim.

Thinking myself a seasoned camper, I decided at the age of 18 to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail, all 2,181 miles, so bought a backpack, loaded it with 70 pounds of camping gear–I weighed 110 pounds–and drove my Volkswagen Beetle 400 miles to the nearest trail point, located in the Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee. The first day, I hiked about a quarter of a mile before deciding to stop for the night so I could better savor the experience. That night I calculated that at my current rate of travel it would take me 24 years to hike the trail in its entirety, but I was young and had time. Then it began to rain. I had forgotten my pup tent, so curled up inside in a garbage bag and thought of home, which I had been so eager to escape just two days before. It was still raining early the next morning, the trail was muddy and hilly, so I stopped after another quarter mile to eat and rest.

It occurred to me, while sitting in the rain, that I had grossly overestimated my backpacking abilities. Through sheer determination, with a resolve that can only in retrospect be described as heroic, I hiked the half-mile back to my car and drove home to Danville.  I walked in the back door.

My mother said, “Where have you been?”

“Out in the fresh air,” I told her.

“Well, I’m glad you’re home for supper,” she said, and that was that.

Though it was embarrassing at the time—I had told all my friends I would be gone three months–it was a formative event, because it taught me that when the going got tough, my first impulse was to get in my car and go home. That’s a very important thing to know about yourself. I realized I had a tendency to avoid difficulty and struggle. It helps to know that about yourself, so you can build it into the equation. You can factor that in, which I did by marrying Joan who cheerfully handles all my difficulties and struggles for me. No, it taught me that I had to ignore my first impulse, which was to wave the white flag of surrender, and instead to persist.

We’ve been talking about dysfunctional families, which are comprised of dysfunctional people, and that includes all of us to some degree or another. This dysfunction is rooted in immaturity, so our lives must be a quest for maturity, for wholeness and growth. We’ve thought about what maturity looks like. People who are mature make friends, not enemies. They accept responsibility and avoid blaming others.

Here is another quality of mature people: mature people commit themselves to self-awareness. They seek out and face the honest truth about themselves. They know what they are capable of, and what will be difficult, or perhaps even impossible, for them.

Early in his adult life, Jesus retreated to the wilderness, where he underwent three temptations. But what if we think of this also as a moment of self-awareness and self-discovery? First, Jesus was urged to change stones into bread, which he rightly understood as the temptation to forsake his essence, his being, which is why he answered, “I don’t live on bread alone, but by every word that comes from the Spirit.”

The second temptation was the power to transcend the laws of nature by leaping from a cliff and trusting God’s angels to catch him. But when you love someone, you don’t need to test them, so Jesus said, “I’ll not test God.”

The third temptation was to be given authority over all the kingdoms of the world if only Jesus would devote himself to evil. Jesus said, “I’ll devote myself only to God.”

Now let me just say these were real temptations for Jesus.  That is the nature of temptation, after all.  They have to capture our imaginations. They have to entice us, woo us. If someone tempted me with Brussel sprouts, I could be virtuous all day long, but a package of M&M’s would be a real temptation.

So Jesus was tempted to forsake his essence. Then he was tempted to transcend the natural order. Finally, he was tempted to worship evil for the sake of earthly power. Those were real struggles for him. Because they were real temptations for him, they were also an opportunity for self-awareness and self-discovery. He left the desert knowing something about himself he hadn’t known when he entered it.

Self-aware people are committed to learning about themselves, learning their strengths and weaknesses, taking both into account as they navigate life.  More importantly, as they learn about themselves, they don’t attach any judgment to their self-discovery. That is, they don’t applaud themselves too highly or condemn themselves too harshly. Their goal is awareness of their patterns, and in learning those patterns, improving their lives.  They will, in the words of Jesus, know the truth, and the truth will set them free.

When the Apostle Paul wrote his first letter to the church in Corinth, self-awareness was central to its theme. Each of you have a role. God has made some to be apostles, others prophets, some teachers, others healers, some the interpreters of language and mystery. That was really an argument for finding your place. But finding your place takes self-awareness.

And you must find your place, discover yourself, without attaching judgment to your discovery. As you learn about your qualities, be careful about labeling them as bad or good. Many traits have the capacity to both curse and bless us.  I have a friend whose parents always told her she was impulsive. The way it was said, made her think impulsiveness was a bad thing, akin to recklessness and thoughtlessness, so she felt guilty about it. Then she began meeting people who could never make a decision, who attached such weight to every choice they were effectively paralyzed, and it made her see the virtues of impulse and instinct. She began to feel better about being impulsive. Yes, it certainly had its risks.  But it also meant she could decide matters quickly, instinctively, intuitively.

Know yourself, but know yourself without attaching judgement to your discovery.  Don’t be excessively condemning, nor excessively congratulatory. It’s like Dear Abby said, “Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.”

Knowing ourselves requires a certain fearlessness, a certain ruthlessness, a willingness to peel back the masks we’ve been wearing, and see with clarity that which we have not seen before–our true selves. Then, as Jesus said, we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free.