W. H. Auden on self-awareness

 

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I came across these words by W. H. Auden in his foreword to Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings and thought they were worth thinking about further:

No man can draw his own “profile” correctly because, as Thoreau said: “It is as hard to see oneself as to look backwards without turning round.” The truth is that our friends – and our enemies – always know us better than we know ourselves. These are, to be sure, a few corrective touches to their picture of us which only we can add, and these, as a rule, are concerned with our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses.

It is, for example, axiomatic that we should all think of ourselves as being more sensitive than other people because, when we are insensitive in our dealings with others, we cannot be aware of it at the time: conscious insensitivity is a self-contradiction.

Secondly, we can hardly avoid thinking that the majority of persons we meet have stronger characters than we. We cannot observe others making choices; we only know what, in fact, they do, and how, in fact, they behave. Provided their actions are not criminal, their behavior not patently vicious, and their performance of their job in life reasonably efficient, they will strike us as strong characters. But nobody can honestly think of himself as a strong character because, however successful he may be in overcoming them, he is necessarily aware of the doubts and temptations that accompany every important choice. Unless he is a crook or has made an utter mess of his life, he will recognize the truth Cesare Pavese’s observation: “We can all do good deeds, but very few of us can think good thoughts.”

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