Young people are very knowledgeable. We have a lot to offer the world, especially our energy and our hunger for justice, but there is still much wisdom we can gain from our elders. Sometimes our elders are role models within our families, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, and other times they can be found within our church and wider communities, such as teachers, volunteers, clergy and religious. In this case, however, I want to reference an elder who lived long before any of the people I mentioned: a Greek philosopher named Socrates. We are still learning from his ideas to this day, but one phrase in particular that repeatedly make its way into our culture is this: know thyself.
Another elder who shares in that wisdom from a Christian perspective is St. Augustine of Hippo. Along those same lines, he taught that a person cannot hope to find God unless they first find themselves. This has always been an interesting concept to me, one that has given me much to ponder as a maturing young adult. Although I hope to continue learning about myself until my last breath, there are several things I can say I already know.
- I can be a good listener
- I am not a morning person
- I need fluidity in my schedule
- I love being outdoors
- Books and movies are like great adventures to me
- I most enjoy expressing myself through writing and dancing
For a long time I thought I had always known these things. I figured that because they seem to be such a permanent part of who I am, there was never a need for me to learn them.
Take the fact that I am not a morning person, for example. How would I know this if I had not learned it through my struggles during high school? Or the fact that I need a schedule which allows for some flexibility? It wasn't until I had a very rigid schedule that I discovered the structure of a daily routine drained me of my energy.
Other things I learned about myself, like the fact that I listen well and express myself well through writing and dance, I learned because people would tell me. After a friend would share a difficult story with me, they would say, "Wow, you're a really good listener." When I received this affirmation time and again, I came to understand it as one of my God-given gifts.
It was the same with dance and writing. I thought dance and writing were simply things I enjoyed, but it turned out I could truly share a deeper part of myself through these artistic expressions. Teachers and mentors would often say things like, "You are very good at writing," or "I could see how deep in prayer you were during that dance," so I came to believe that these too were gifts from God.
Knowledge of self does not end there, however. Not only will I continue to learn about myself, but I am also responsible to do something with that knowledge. Knowing that I am not a morning person does not give me an excuse; it gives me a challenge. The challenge is not only working hard to show up on time for early morning commitments but also finding the environment that will best enable me to do so.
Does it mean going to bed earlier? Maybe. Going to bed earlier can sometimes be difficult for those of us who enjoy the evening and night hours so much, but maybe there's a compromise. Perhaps you can still stay up until 11 p.m. or midnight, but instead of watching a movie or TV show on Netflix, maybe you can read a book to help relax your eyes and mind. This way you can still to stay up late, but you won't be stimulating your senses since that's what leads to tossing and turning once the lights are finally out.
It could also mean a change of schedule. That's what finally helped me. I was teaching, so I had very structured days with little time alone. As an introvert, the constant interaction was taxing, but the same daily routine Monday through Friday wasn't helping either. Not everyone can just up and change their schedule or their job, but fortunately I am in a community who understands the vow of obedience as listening -- listening to God and to one another.
When I asked for a change of ministry, my community was open to letting me try something less structured. Once I got to change my ministry, my schedule became more open. I get to travel a lot now, but I also get to partake in different ministries when I am at home and not on the road. I also have more time alone. Even though it's at a desk sometimes, I don't mind. I always trembled at the thought of having a desk job, but it actually creates a nice balance to the constant motion of travel and speaking engagements.
The other interesting aspect of self-knowledge is that it's not all about me. Knowing more about myself and learning to love who God created me to be also allows me to create space for others in my heart. It can provide an opportunity for empathy and help me enter into difficult situations with people so as to journey with them. Just the phrase "I understand," and being able to mean it, can make a world of difference. Not only that, but self-knowledge also invites God's mercy into my own life because I am a human being with faults and failings and yet still worthy of God's love.
This means I can see others in the same way: They are human beings with faults and failings, yet still worthy of God's love. If they are worthy of God's love, how could they not be worthy of mine? If I can love myself with my weak points and sinfulness, then surely I can love another who struggles with their human nature as well. But even this is not the extent of the gift of self-knowledge.
By knowing ourselves, we can more readily find ways to honor and love the God who called us into being. For example, I would not set aside quiet time for myself and God in the morning. It would mean waking up extra early, and if I did that I would just be grumpy. Instead, I offer God my quiet time in the evening, when I am relaxed but alert. This is my best time, so it would only make sense that I would want to spend time with a loved one when I know I'll be able to share the best of my energy.
However, this does not mean that God can't handle the parts of us that are not our best selves. God can handle and love all of who we are. When I have to get up in the morning to pray with my community, God is still happy I'm there even with my sleepy yawns and droopy eyelids. It just means that my part of the conversation won't be so lively and I may not be as attuned to God's voice as I am in the evening. The same is true with writing and dancing. Knowing that I enjoy writing means I can share with God and listen to God through the words I put down on a page. It means my prayer is deeper and more beautiful when it flows through my pen or through my choreography because it is flowing from the very place where God has made His home in me.
Our talents and our gifts, the things we know about ourselves and the things we have yet to discover, all of this is a way to love and live more fully. Maybe tonight -- or in the morning -- you can take some time to write down (or speak about, for those who are extroverts!) the things you have already learned about yourself. As you do, maybe you can take a moment to think about how you can use those things for prayer, for giving back to your church or school community, or for helping someone who is currently struggling.
In the words of Dr. Seuss: "Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is you-er than you." You're the only one who can accomplish the purpose for which God has placed you on this earth. Self-knowledge is a gift, and to anyone who has ever given someone a gift, you know that the most exciting part of giving a gift is watching the person who received it enjoy it and put it to good use.
So let's let God watch us enjoy our gifts and put them to good use!