It’s a fair question, and one that people fail to ask themselves often enough when they look in the mirror. The answer depends on how honest we can stand to be with ourselves. People tend to avoid looking inward for fear of what they might see behind the mask they present to the world. Others have come to see the mask itself as being representative of who they truly are, and refuse to consider there’s something more underneath. Something deep within them that they don’t want to admit.
We are all avatars in some way and the digital world has made it easier than ever to present an idealized version of ourselves. We would like to think that we’re enlightened creatures that have mostly grown beyond petty rivalries, jealously and other human foibles—because those negative qualities hurt other’s opinions of us. Yet we are human and all of us necessarily have these faults and many more. No one is without flaws and to deny them is to deny the possibility of real improvement. To ignore them in favour of projecting a fake image is worse.
The trend these days is to embrace our differences and celebrate our uniqueness. We are encouraged to become the best versions of ourselves that we can be. Follow your heart is a common bit of wisdom that many espouse, along with a zealous admonishment to disregard what anyone else thinks. You do you. Only your truth matters. Be who you want to be. It sounds good on paper, even noble, but how do you know what the best version of you should even look like? There can’t be seven billion distinct truths out there, a little different for each person. Some of them are just bunk. Sorry…it’s true. So how do we figure out if the person we want to be is worth investing the time and effort into becoming?
Socrates is credited with saying that the unexamined life is not worth living. Without self-reflection how can we hope to make any real or lasting improvements? And if the way we see ourselves is only skin deep, how can we say we really know ourselves at all? I’m not saying I have any more immunity than anyone else regarding this tendency to gloss over the unvarnished truth of our lives, and I’m not here to get up on a soapbox and preach. I have noticed from time to time, however, that when I’m truly honest with myself I find that I’m far from the person I project for the world to see.
I’m a collection of contradictions. I hate when people are rude or ignorant, but when things aren’t going well for me I’m not above being an asshole sometimes. I like to think that I’m a good father, but there are times when I know I’m making parenting choices that put my needs first. It’s not that I can’t be kind, generous, and loving—it’s just that I’m not able or willing to be these things all the time. Sometimes I’m selfish and petty.
So how do we learn to see things as they are so that we can begin to improve? Partially by listening to what others say. Therein lies a problem, though. The natural inclination of humans is to take a side and then stick with it no matter how much dissenting opinion is thrown our way. This plays out in countless ways in chats groups, social media circles, and any other virtual spaces where people engage in discussions. We are like islands within ourselves: insular, proud and unwilling to consider that we’re just plain wrong about a great many things. You can spout facts until you’re blue in the face and it won’t make any difference most of the time. That flat-earther is going to go right on believing we live on a Frisbee, not a globe.
Instead of just admitting we’re wrong about things, we resort to justifications and excuses. We’ll do just about anything to protect our fragile egos from being tested. If you steal things from work and justify it by saying that they don’t pay you well enough, that’s a lame a crock of shit and you know it. You fucking know it, if you’re honest with yourself. And what about that person you cut off in traffic this morning because you were in a hurry? All the excuses in the world don’t justify your actions. You might say the person you cut in front of was just too slow or you’re a better driver and should therefore be allowed to drive as you wish. We both know if you’d just left a bit earlier you wouldn’t have had to rush. What if someone got hurt? Would you say it’s their fault for getting in your way?
This is compounded when something bad happens as a result of our poor choices in life. What if someone dies because of our negligence? How many of us could admit that we fucked up and shoulder the blame, whatever the consequences? How many of us would keep our mouths shut and hope the whole thing passes us by so that we could keep on living the way we have been?
It’s hard to look in the mirror and see things for what they really are. It’s hard to admit that we aren’t the best person in the world. It’s hard to not make excuses for fuck ups that we had a direct hand in creating. I’m not saying there aren’t saints out there, living blameless lives. I’m sure there are, just as I’m sure there’s a lot of good people living life the best they know how under difficult circumstances. What I’m saying is that not enough people are willing to admit that they need to work on themselves because facing that cold, hard reality is unpleasant and we only have so much time on this ball of mud.
All I’m asking is that when you go home tonight and look in the mirror: see yourself. Really see yourself. If there’s something you know you should change, work on it. Then work on the next thing. Will you ever be perfect? Nope. But the pursuit of grace and honesty isn’t a waste of time. It’s what separates us from the wild beasts.