I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this sermon series on the characteristics of grown-up people. This is the 12th sermon in this series, which makes it the longest sermon series I’ve ever given. Since God gave only 10 commandments, it feels arrogant to exceed that number, to limit God to ten statements, while going on and on yourself. Not that I deserve more words than God, it’s just that God is crisp and concise and has had the benefit of editors, which explains God’s restraint and my indulgence.
In his song, Holy Mother, Eric Clapton asks, “Holy mother, where are you?…Tell me please which way to turn, to find myself again.” That is the universal and common cry of many, the desire to find ourselves, to know ourselves. Hoping that if we find God, we might in the process find ourselves. When Jesus met the woman at the well, she returned to her village and said, “Come meet this man who told me everything about myself.” And they went, because who doesn’t want to know more about themselves? Well, as it turns out, a lot of people. Which brings us to this week’s topic—self-awareness. Grown-up people are self-aware. They are knowledgeable about their character, their feelings, their motives, and desires. It is the knowledge of self that leads to personal growth. We know that’s true, because we know that our own growth has always been preceded by the awareness of our lack.
Let me offer an example. When I was 21 and thinking of becoming a pastor, I was told I needed a college education and a master’s degree. Overwhelmed at the thought of attending college for seven years, I was delighted to find a book at the Plainfield Bible Book store entitled God’s Answer for Everything. On sale for $2.50, a 75% discount! The realization that God’s answer for everything could be had for $2.50, should have given me pause, but it didn’t, so I bought the book, showed it to my mother, and said, “Look at this! God’s answer for everything. If someone comes to me with a problem, all I have to do is turn to the index, find the problem, conveniently alphabetized, turn to that page, and tell them God’s answer. Who needs college? Not me.”
Mom said, “Let me know how that works.”
It didn’t work. In fact, it made me arrogant. Whenever a topic arose, I would thumb through my $2.50 book, discover God’s answer, and set others straight. Eventually, I realized no book, especially one on a discount rack marked down 75%, contained God’s answer for everything. I realized my life up until then had been spent avoiding study and reflection. In school, I hadn’t done homework; I had settled for a C, when an A was possible. I did the least I could possibly do to get by. And not just in school, but in every facet of my life. I was happy with being “just good enough.” As soon as I realized that, “good enough” was no longer good enough.
Our growth is almost always preceded by the awareness of our lack. This is why self-awareness is essential to our growth. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung said, “Those who look outside, dream; those who look inside, awake.” Self-awareness is the process of awakening not only to our deficiencies, not only to our lack, but to our gifts, so that we might face our lack honestly, and use our gifts wisely in service to our growth.
How does this self-awareness happen? Carl Jung believed we needed to pay attention to what irritates us about others, because it led us to an understanding of ourselves. Why is that true? Because oftentimes the faults we are quick to find in others are the very faults we ourselves possess, but cannot admit. Here’s a helpful exercise if you want to become more self-aware. Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself, “What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?”
Early Quakers believed one gift of silence was that it encouraged self-examination, which led to self-awareness, which resulted in spiritual and moral growth. It is no secret that the least morally developed among us are often those people incapable of silence, uneasy with reflection, and thus unaware of their moral, spiritual, and intellectual deficits. If you want to keep someone from growing, then keep them talking, keep them agitated and stirred up, condemn thoughtfulness and self-examination so people remain enslaved by ignorance and zealotry. I’ve heard this can even happen in America.
Regrettably, it often requires pain to make us self-aware. There’s a man with whom I’ve very close whose wife had an affair and left him several years ago. As you can imagine, he was distraught and sometimes I phoned him each day to check on his welfare. Our discussions often included hard words about his wife’s unfaithfulness. It was clear to us who was the bad guy and who was the good guy. Then one day, instead of berating his ex-wife, he said to me, “It has occurred to me it wasn’t all her fault. I should have been a more attentive partner.” Several years later, he remarried, and is a much better husband in his second marriage. It often requires pain to make us self-aware.
I wonder if the national pain we’re experiencing these days might not be all bad. What if it makes us more acutely aware of the deep-seated and sinful racism that has gone unseen by too many white Americans? What if our national pain has made us more acutely aware of the injustice visited upon women? Upon the poor? What if our national pain has made us more acutely aware of economic policies that keep so many uneducated, ignorant, and angry? What if it has made us aware how vulnerable too many of us have become to lies and blusters and bigotry? What if, at the end of these turbulent times, we emerge more aware, more enlightened, more egalitarian, more able to grow? Then wouldn’t we say, that as hard and difficult as it has been, wasn’t it worth it. For now our eyes would be open, our hearts would be changed, our world expanded and more lovely. Grown-up people are self-aware. Looking inwardly, they have awakened. And having awakened, have grown.