Unmasking & Facing Oneself


I didn’t make you do anything that wasn’t in you already. People are such hypocrites. They walk through their whole lives playing innocent until the day they die; but they’re not innocent. I showed you that.” – from the motion picture “Bad Influence

“I have often laughed at the weaklings who thought themselves good because they had no claws.” – Nietzsche

How much do any of us really know about ourselves and what we’re really capable of unless we’ve been tried and tested at the extremes, or at least outside of our comfort zone?

We gain knowledge and glimpses of who we are and might become whenever we’re forced outside our comfort zones.

But most of us fight tooth and nail for our comfort zones and to not have to leave them. We fight for safety, comfort, routine, security. And thus in many ways, these fights are for our own survival—for the continuation of who we think we are—the idea or concept we have of ourselves, and fights against new and likely deeper self-knowledge. Instead we tend to fight to stay in our comfort zones and for the reinforcement of the limited information we already possess about ourselves.

Thus what we know of ourselves may really be knowledge of a very limited self—and thus it is a false- or a pseudo-self, a mask.

“The being of man is situated behind a curtain. . . . What he can know of himself is only what is lent him by circumstance. My ‘I’ is hidden from me (and from others).” – Simone Weil, “Gravity and Grace,” pg. 85

“Our shortcomings are concealed from us as long as luck helps us.” – Hadrat Ali, “Living and Dying with Grace,” pg. 8.

“Through changes in circumstances the essence of individuals is known.” – Hadrat Ali, “Living and Dying with Grace,” pg. 41.

What we are know of ourselves is likely a “cloistered” or “hot house” version of ourselves. It’s not a very full or large version of ourselves—not a self based on a wide breadth of exposure to different difficulties and circumstances, but rather a self likely based on a rather limited exposure to life and circumstances.

Who we truly are, deep down, likely requires us to be exposed to a wide variety of circumstances and experiences, so that we can better become aware of our potentials and tendencies and traits.

To discern our essence, to unmask ourselves, likely requires that we live and think and read somewhat more broadly than we are now—that we consider this phrase of Terrence’s a bit more closely : “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto“—”I am a man, I consider nothing that is human alien to me.

Which doesn’t mean that we just start throwing ourselves around willy-nilly into every life situation and difficulty that we can, irrespective of consequences and dangers, but perhaps that we start to understand better the possible consequences of honoring our comfort zone and saying no to difficulty and new things too much.

[E]ach human being has a set repertoire of roles which he plays in ordinary circumstances. He has a role for every kind of circumstance in which he ordinarily finds himself in life.

But put him into even only slightly different circumstances and he is unable to find a suitable role—if only for a short time—and for that short time he becomes completely himself.

Each person’s repertoire is very limited. And each person is not one “I” or role; each person has at least five or six I’s or roles—one or two for his family, one or two at the office (one for his subordinates, one for his superiors), one for his friends when he’s out on the town with them, and perhaps one who is interested in high-minded ideas and likes intellectual conversations.

And at different times the person is fully identified with one of these I’s and is unable to separate himself from it.

To see the roles, to know one’s repertoire—particularly to know its limitedness—is to know a great deal.

But more important than that is that, outside his repertoire, a person feels very uncomfortable should something push him, if only temporarily, out of his usual routine or accustomed ways, and he tries his hardest to return to any one of his usual roles.

Eventually, and usually sooner rather than later, he falls back into the rut, and everything at once goes smoothly again, and the feeling of awkwardness and tension disappears.

This is how it is in life.

But in order to grow, one must become reconciled to this awkwardness and tension and to the feeling of discomfort and helplessness. Only by allowing oneself to experience this discomfort can a person begin to really observe himself.

And it is clear why this is so. When a person is not playing any of his usual roles, when he cannot find a suitable role in his repertoire, he feels that he is naked, undressed. He is cold and ashamed, vulnerable and exposed, and he wants to run away from everybody.

The question then arises: what does he want? A quiet life? Or to work on himself?

If he wants a quiet, comfortable life, it’s clear what he must do: he must certainly first of all never move out of his repertoire. Because in his usual roles he feels comfortable and at peace.

But if he wants to work on himself, he must forsake his own comfort and destroy his own peace. Because to have them both together—a quiet life and to work comfortably on oneself—is in no way possible.

A person must make a choice.

(G. I. Gurdjieff, quoted in P. D. Ouspensky “In Search of the Miraculous,” pp. 239-40.)

Sigmund Freud once asserted, ‘Let one attempt to expose a number of the most diverse people uniformly to hunger. With the increase of the imperative urge of hunger all individual differences will blur, and in their stead will appear the uniform expression of the one unstilled urge.’ Thank heaven, Sigmund Freud was spared knowing the concentration camps from the inside. His subjects lay on a couch designed in the plush style of Victorian culture, not in the filth of Auschwitz. There, [in Auschwitz,] the ‘individual differences’ did not ‘blur’ but, on the contrary, people became more different; people unmasked themselves, both the swine and the saints.” (Viktor Frankl, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” p. 178)

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