As Socrates climbed down the steep slopes that surround Delphi, the words of the oracle of would still have been rolling around in his mind, “Know yourself!”. The word count of Apollo’s personal message to him was pretty low, but their depth was measureless. No doubt, being the great philosopher that he was, Socrates would have grasped in an instant the scale of the charge he had been given: Sisyphus had got off pretty lightly in comparison and Hercules had been given a walk in the park. How can a person truly know themselves? Is it possible for anyone to chart the depths of their own psyche or measure the heights of their own potential? And yet the wisdom of these words is indisputable.
In thinking of the lessons I’ve learned through being in the pastorate, the importance of self-understanding was the first to present itself to my mind. I’ve included it not because I think that church pastors are in a unique position to know themselves, but because I don’t think I personally would ever have had reason to begin on this process had I not become a minister.
Having said that, I do think that the ministry is an excellent place to hide from the truth about yourself. It offers an open-goal for the person wanting to adopt an entirely different persona. As a position of authority, it’s the best place to hide from self-doubt; as a role to which others willingly cede power, it is a perfect bolt hole from the experience of vulnerability; as a vocation that is embedded in the psyche of western society it provides the perfect means to replace authentic relations with a ready-made cliche.
Pulpits make great barricades. Behind them the timid can become bold and the withdrawn charismatic, without ever exposing our self-doubts to condemnation or our selves to hurt.
So why did I become a minister? I would have to say that it was a cocktail of good, bad and psychologically driven reasons. Some of these motivations I was aware of at the time, others existed as faint, ghostly presences in my consciousness. Without a doubt some of the factors that drove me to enter the ministry I am yet to discover.
But I’m pretty convinced that the same could be said about why any of us do any of the things we do. The important task is to begin the life-long process of figuring out why we make the decisions we make and why we respond as we do to the stuff that life throws us.
Without consciously doing this, then we will continue to engage with others and the world around us under the controlling influence of our own psychological processes. The more we are driven by our own needs, the less we are truly driven by the needs of others.
But this process of gaining self-understanding is painful one. I know I’m not selling it by saying this, but this is perhaps the most obvious statement to make. Why would we invest so much of our lives developing and perfecting defensive mechanisms unless whatever it is we are defending against is painful, or at least perceived to be painful? We need to retrace our steps through the defensive maze we have built and there find the Minotaur we have been hiding from all our lives. And here’s the scary bit, this Minotaur is not some ‘other’ that must be slain, but is the ‘me’ that is so unacceptable we have been denying its existence or projecting onto others all our lives. Having found the courage to look at this ‘monster’ we need to find yet more in order to accept him or her.
As a counterbalance to what I have just written I must also say that few things are as exciting or as rewarding in life as to discover who we are and what makes us tick. It not only introduces us to the complexity of our own being, but it also frees us up to engage more authentically with others and to discover something of the complexity that characterises all humans.
I really need to emphasise at this point that I do not write this as someone who claims to have achieved some kind of personal enlightenment. Self-understanding is a life-long process, a struggle even, which has no completion point. In fact, I would describe it as a striving for an openness to ourselves; for honesty and integrity in our inner lives.
For anyone who is serious about getting close to others or helping others to grow, understanding and dismantling those defences that we have put up against others and against ourselves is an essential task. It seems to me that it is only as we are engaged in this process that we can empathise with others or resist the urge to get embroiled in some psychological game.
A greater charge was given by Christ to his disciples even than the one received by Socrates when he commanded his followers to love one another. If we take seriously the mission of the church to be a community of love, then, I would suggest, we need also to get serious about knowing ourselves.