W. H. Auden on self-knowledge

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I came across these comments by W. H. Auden in his foreword to Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings not too long ago. They brought to mind Auden’s powerful two lines in “As I Walked Out One Evening”:

You shall love your crooked neighbour
   With your crooked heart.

Auden is not only an astounding poet but an insightful essayist. His comments in this preface to Hammarskjöld’s revered book highlight the challenge of self-awareness, blind spots, and comparison with our knowledge of others.

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.”

Solitude Brings Coherence

We enter solitude, in which also we lose loneliness. Only discord can come of the attempt to share solitude. True solitude is found in the wild places, where one is without human obligation. One’s inner voices become audible. One feels the attraction of one’s most intimate sources. In consequence, one responds more clearly to other lives. The more coherent one becomes within oneself as a creature, the more fully one enters into the communion of all creatures. One returns from solitude laden with the gifts of circumstance.

– Wendell Berry, “Healing,” Stanza IV in What Are People For?

Wendell Berry’s statement that we lose loneliness by entering solitude seems completely counter-intuitive. Most of us are afraid of solitude for the very reason that we feel, in being alone, we will necessarily become lonely. But it does not have to be that way.

As Berry mentions, it is often in the “wild places” are where I feel most at ease in solitude. The fresh air, the rugged wildness, and the scurrying of creatures around makes me aware of both my smallness in the vastness of God’s creation, yet also God’s infinite attentiveness to the cosmos He has made. In the midst of this, nature’s contours soothe my soul. I am sure this soothing arises in part because, as Berry writes, in these wild places we are without “human obligation.”  In wild places we are away from people we feel obligated to engage with and things we feel obligated to do.

Both for good and ill, it is in solitude that we hear inner voices. Words that have been floating around inside of us – whole streams of though – suddenly take on such clear force that we are at times overwhelmed. We wonder, “Where did that thought come from?” Or, “I haven’t thought about that in awhile.” In reality these thoughts and ideas – these inner voices – are ever-present yet go unheeded because of the clamor of people and things in our daily lives. The voices and thoughts are there, but until we quiet ourselves enough, both externally and internally, we often either suppress them or ignore them.

When we are attentive to these inner voices and more intimate thoughts, we have the opportunity to come to a more comprehensive internal order with God and ourselves. We bring those clamoring voices to the living God and ask to hear His voice in it all. The unheeded voices that were always there speaking messages of fear or hurt or joy to us have been heard, conversed with, and brought to greater resolution in conversation with the God who hears and knows us. They grow quiet now. God’s voice becomes more solid, enduring, and strong. It is in this journey that we achieve a sense of coherence. We become less divided and distracted.

It is from this order and coherence that God sends us out with the ability to more fully engage with others and the created world. We become more fully present and able to connect with those around us.  We are in tune with God and the cosmos because of His work in our turbulent souls. With the Spirit’s power strengthening our will we can face the things that come into our daily lives, both planned and unplanned.

In solitude the various slivers of our distracted and fragmented selves come to a greater unity in God’s presence. That greater unity enables us to receive people into true relationship and bring our tasks toward completion. It is that powerful reality mentioned in the psalms:

Teach me Your way, Lord, that I may rely on Your faithfulness; give me an undivided heart, that I may fear Your name. (Psalm 86:11).

||40days|| week six: live

The||40days|| journey of Lent has taken us along the road of acknowledging difficult things in our lives, turning from them, listening to God’s voice, and then following Jesus, our Leader. This week, we continue the journey with a focus around the theme: ‘live.’

At times, it might be easy to mistake the journey of these ||40days|| as only difficult or painful. We might be tempted to view confession, repentance, and sorrow as ends in themselves. But that is not Jesus’ way. Jesus came to seek and save that which was lost in order to bring us back into life with God. We hear Him say these very powerful words:

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:10, NIV)

Following Christ moves us through self-denial into deep and true life.Read More »

||40days|| week five: follow

With all the talk in social media about how many followers you have, it is easy to lose sight of what it really means to follow someone. This season of Lent, which we are marking with our ||40days|| journey, is really all about following Jesus.

So this fifth week we take the next step after acknowledging, turning, and listening, to following Jesus. One of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry was his very simple call to people that we encounter very early in Mark’s gospel:

“Come, follow me,” Jesus said. (Mark 1:17, NIV)

These days it might be easy for us to wonder what it really means to follow Jesus. After all, we cannot Read More »

||40days|| week four: listen in the other

One of the greatest challenges for any parent is trying to communicate with a child. With young children, there are times when you have to sit them down, make sure they have steady eye contact, and then slowly speak your points. After that, you may ask the question, “Do you understand what I am saying?” The parent can only hope the message has gotten through. (Of course, some children have the same concern with their parents!)

One of the ways we can hear from God is through the voice of another person. As we continue the ||40days|| journey through Lent with attention to listening for God, we look today at what it means to hear God in another person. Even as God speaks primarily through Scripture, what does it mean to hear from Him in another person. Let me suggest seven things to consider when evaluating whether a person is worth listening to as a representative of God, whether at a personal or corporate level:

  1. God speaks through people who love God’s words (2 Timothy 2:14-3:10). When Paul offers instruction to the young pastor, Timothy, he calls him to hold to the truth in contrast to those who lose focus through godless chatter and a departure from the truth.
  2. God speaks through people who bring His truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). What we hear from others is not God’s word if it is devoid of biblical truth or biblical love. If those elements are there, however, we do well to listen for God in another person’s words.
  3. God speaks through people who help us develop and grow (Proverbs 27:17). We read inRead More »