LACK OF SELF-AWARENESS
AND THE THIN, INVISIBLE LINE
Self-awareness is the thin, invisible line of civilization.
If that's true, then what is a lack of self-awareness?
That would seem to make a lack of self-awareness a fat, obvious hole of chaos.
"Know Thyself" is almost universally respected as good advice.
But why is this advice necessary? Why, in other words, is it assumed that we don't already know ourselves?
In other words, what's the opposite of self-knowledge?
It must be something along the lines of a lack of self-awareness.
This points to a very basic idea:
A core component of human nature is a fundamental lack of self-awareness.
It’s kind of a big deal.
Although few people say it out loud (for reasons that should become obvious), this thin, invisible line has a profound impact on the world, to put it mildly.
There’s a basic blindness in human nature.
Our response to this fundamental blindness determines our level of civilization.
We’re naturally objective toward others but subjective toward ourselves.
We tend to judge others harshly based on their behavior, but let ourselves off the hook due to our good intentions.
It’s easy for us to see silliness, stupidity, and malice in others, but it’s incredibly difficult to see them in ourselves. In fact, we often avoid it at every possible opportunity.
There are ways the entire rest of the world is “in on a joke” that we aren’t.
That “joke” is our inability to see ourselves from a more or less objective viewpoint, and nearly everyone else’s ability to see exactly that.
Almost everyone can easily see individuals they don’t know well with some degree of impartial objectivity. But hardly anyone can do it with themselves. We just can’t see ourselves as others do, however we might try.
The degree to which we’re aware of this dynamic is kind of a big deal.
Our efforts to counter this dynamic – or lack thereof – are also kind of a big deal.
Our reaction to this glass cage of awareness determines how evolved – or devolved – civilization becomes.
It’s worth digging a little deeper into the basic dynamic in all this.
For example, we can imagine a guy who sings in a choir.
We can imagine that this guy is sophisticated, highly educated, and tremendously wealthy. He has a booming voice, all the fashionable opinions on important matters, and is completely tone-deaf.
When he sings, everyone else hears cringey, off-key notes.
But to him, it sounds glorious. He might say, “Don’t act like you’re not impressed.”
He has no clue about his own condition.
Well, he’s tone-deaf. It all sounds fine to him.
Unless someone else deliberately explains this to him, he’ll be completely unaware of the situation.
Even if someone does explain it to him, and he listens, and understands, and takes it seriously (all of which is not easy), to him it will still seem abstract and theoretical. His impression will be something along these lines: “There’s a thing called ‘tone’ that I’m apparently not able to hear or sense at all. I have no read on it, but everyone else does.”
Of course, none of this is his fault. He has no ruler to measure by. His gauge is broken. It’s like the meter for his gas tank always reads “Full,” no matter how much gas he has. Every note he sings sounds fine to him.
In some ways, maybe we’re all tone-deaf singers?
A certain Anchorman demonstrates this well.
Ron Burgandy exudes a lack of self-awareness through every pore. That’s part of what makes him so hilarious.
“He’ll read anything you put on the teleprompter.”
We might laugh.
It’s one thing to accidentally tell off an entire city. It’s another to do that and be blissfully unaware of ever having done it.
But are we all, in some ways, Ron Burgandy?
We laugh at Ron reading anything you put on the teleprompter.
But don’t we often do the same with our own minds and hearts?
What if we all assumed that every thought in our head and every feeling in our heart, at all times, was completely legit? What if we just took for granted that it was completely reality-based, accurate, wise, loving, and noble?
In this sense, we might be like Ron reading off the teleprompter with zero awareness or understanding.
We’d simply take whatever thoughts and feelings came up in ourselves, and go with them, unfiltered.
We all act on some of our thoughts and feelings. But do we have awareness and understanding of them? Do we really know ourselves?
Ron illustrates this lack of self-awareness extremely well.
We could even call it “The Burgandy Effect.” It's a fundamental lack of self-awareness that's central to human nature and that allows us to perceive others in ways that we can't see ourselves, and vice versa.
Kierkegaard, Sartre, Pascal, and others have explored it in some depth.
Even mainstream psychology has shed some partial light in this area by way of the “Dunning-Kruger effect,” where individuals with little expertise tend to overestimate their ability, while those with a lot of expertise tend to underestimate.
But this basic insight is at least thousands of years old. From the ability to see a splinter in someone else’s eyes while missing the stick in one’s own to Socrates’ skills for revealing that many people actually knew less than they thought, our knowledge of this dynamic isn’t new.
An old Hindu story also illustrates it well.
The story goes something roughly like this:
Ten men were traveling together. One morning, one of the men became alarmed. “One of us is missing! There are only nine of us!”
That seemed impossible, but he counted.
The other men counted in the same manner and came to the same result.
Everyone was in despair. Someone was missing! They couldn’t really figure out exactly who was missing - minor detail - but still, clearly, something terrible seemed to have happened.
Finally, a stranger came along and asked what was wrong. After the men explained their predicament, he said, “When you were counting, don’t forget about yourself. Don’t forget about the person doing the counting. You’re leaving yourself out of the equation.”
The men realized their mistake and were greatly relieved.
This seems to illustrate a key feature of human nature.
We often tend to pay attention to the external world, but forget ourselves. We study the world, but we don’t factor that we are also part of the world. We often study the universe, but fail to study the mind that’s studying the universe.
The Burgandy Effect, in other words, creates blind spots.
Good scientists often study the external world with a high degree of rigor. But some aren’t rigorous at all when it comes to studying themselves – their own biases, desires, and core assumptions, many of which get unconsciously baked into their “objective” scientific results.
But the story above could also take a different – and much darker – turn.
What if that stranger hadn’t come along to help them solve the problem?
We can imagine what might have happened in that scenario.
“One of us is missing! Someone must have murdered him in the middle of the night, and snuck away, buried the body! One of us must have done it! But who?”
They would have argued and hurled accusations at each other, each imagining that a terrible crime had been committed.
"But who committed the terrible crime? We must find the culprit!"
Eventually, most likely, the loudest, most aggressive, and most outspoken of the bunch would have accused one another. Everyone else would have eventually had to choose a side.
Each side would have made elaborate arguments to make their case against the other. The different sides might clash – or more likely, they’d settle on one individual who seemed to be the weakest and least popular of the group. If they were a bit rash and prone to immediate justice, they’d settle on one person they thought was guilty, and execute them. This is the basic dynamic of “scapegoating.” The problem would be solved, temporarily.
But the next morning, the same thing would happen again.
They would count again, and each of them would realize that another one of them was missing.
The same dynamic would repeat itself the next morning, and the next, and the next. The scapegoat dynamic would continue, until eventually (assuming they wouldn’t figure out their mistake) there would only be one man left.
Now, imagine this happening on a widespread scale.
What if a Lack Of Self-Awareness (“LOSA” for short) would sweep through the population on a widespread scale?
What if there was a sudden LOSA epidemic?
What would that look like?
Chances are, it would lead to something like a breakdown in civilization.
After all, what separates civilization from a breakdown in civilization?
What is the line between order and chaos?
We often hear about the “thin blue line” as the only thing that stands between societal order and disorder. The basic idea is that police enforce the law. Without enforcement, laws are mere words on sheets of paper.
But the thin blue line only becomes necessary once someone has already crossed “the thin invisible line” within themselves.
The basic principle here is “compensation.” What we lose on the inside, we seek on the outside. To the degree that we lose self-control, we need police and other external authorities to control us. To the degree that we lose our inner sense of right and wrong, we need external laws. To the degree that we lose our selves, we envy the “self” in others. The real trick seems to lie not in building up the external world into some imagined state of perfection, but in developing ourselves.
So, what’s the antidote to The Burgandy Effect?
The opposite of a lack of self-awareness is self-knowledge.
“Know thyself” might sound great as a slogan or bumper sticker, but what does it really even mean? How does anyone actually put it into practice?
Throughout history, this antidote to The Burgandy Effect has generally taken form in our spiritual and philosophical traditions.
The basic idea is simple:
Don’t just examine the external world. Examine yourself as well.
Don’t just criticize the external world. Examine yourself as well.
Don’t just try to transform the external world. Try to transform yourself as well.
In two words: be introspective.
By definition, everyone who lacks self-awareness has one common denominator: at least to some degree, they aren’t introspective. Even if they sometimes entertain certain notions about themselves, those notions are often wildly mistaken. This may be due to basic ignorance – due to a total lack of honest feedback – to hostility toward any sort of unflattering notion, where anything remotely close to the vibe that “I was wrong about that” gets aggressively, automatically, and unconsciously banished from awareness.
The ability and willingness to question our own deepest assumptions about life is one of the most profound forces of sanity on a personal level and civilization on a global level.
Are we willing to question our most basic assumptions?
Are we willing to ask The Big Questions?
This sounds simple, but it runs directly contrary to much of human nature.
Our natural tendency is to make assumptions and then simply move on, without ever questioning those assumptions again.
But the basic assumptions we make in our thinking are critical.
If those are wrong, everything that follows from there will likely be off, even if the rest gets executed flawlessly. For example, if we grant the initial assumption that “everyone is out to get me because I’m wonderful and they’re evil,” then everything from that point forward might be perfectly sane and logical.
Yet we often avoid questioning our own assumptions because, on some level, we fear that it might lead to an existential crisis, which can lead to us rethinking everything.
That usually isn’t everyone’s idea of a great pants party.
It often seems much easier in the short run) simply to blame others and the world for everything bad, and attribute everything good to ourselves.
But before long, we can easily wind up telling off an entire city without ever realizing it.
Our efforts throughout history to counter The Burgandy Effect have had varying degrees of success and significant degrees of failure. Our spiritual and philosophical traditions offer us an immense inheritance, yet at the same time, the world today isn’t overflowing with saints, sages, and geniuses.
But then again, we might also want to consider cutting them some slack.
The task is not easy.
In many ways, it sometimes seems impossible.
The job consists of trying to untangle the knot at the core of human nature.
It might be like trying to explain tone to the tone-deaf. (In some ways, we’re all tone-deaf to ourselves.)
But even if it is impossible, we have to try.
After all, we can also see the effects of what happens when we relax our efforts.
We’re getting a pretty good taste of it today (in 2022.)
Generally speaking, the past several decades have displayed plummeting levels of competent and effective organized religion as well as a virtual abdication and self-immolation of serious philosophy. The real action, it seems, likes in gadgets and apps, pills and phones, money and media, not in old-fashioned notions like “introspection” and “thinking.” Pffft. We’ve evolved way beyond all that nonsense, haven’t we? And as a result, the world has suddenly found itself free of superstition and flooded with logic and rationality.
Just the opposite. We seem to be psychologically devolving. This seems to be one of the effects of living through The Death of God.
Many today claim to be striving for some form of self-actualization, and sometimes make heroic efforts. But this quest is riddled with hazards. Self-actualization doesn’t consist of simply riding an escalator of higher and higher levels of bliss, increasingly becoming better, bigger, faster, and stronger while blaming everyone else for everything bad.
It involves a certain kind of inner work.
This “work” involves humility, and a gradual purification of motive.
It’s often not glamorous.
It often means examining and questioning our own thoughts and feelings instead of mindlessly assuming they’re perfect. It involves sorting inner flowers from weeds. It means not merely an unfiltered reading of the teleprompter of our minds and hearts, but struggling to uncover our implicit assumptions and make them explicit. It means working to make our unconscious conscious.
Lack self-awareness is incredibly easy.
Any of us could spray on Sex Panther cologne and imagine we’re devastatingly attractive.
But the tendency for genuine self-delusion can run deep, and the opportunities are endless. An expert can think he’s a novice, and a novice can think he’s an expert. A genius can think he’s a fool, and a fool can think he’s a genius. A beautiful woman can think she’s ugly. A bad man can think he’s good. A tyrant can think he’s a liberator. And vice versa, all around.
It’s possible to be deeply confused about who we are, despite this often being the very thing we can feel most certain about. These matters are intimate, yet treacherous. Our levels of self-delusion are as limitless as our imagination.
It’s not merely possible for us to be self-deluded. In many ways, it’s the norm. It’s our default mode. Unless we take deliberate measures to course-correct, it’s almost certain that we will wind up deluded to one degree or another. It seems to be baked into the cake.
The real question is how much we strive to correct it.
Will we simply imagine ourselves as we want ourselves to be, assume that fantasy is real, pull up the anchor, and drift away into imaginary worlds, completely surrendering to The Burgandy Effect – or will we strive to try to know ourselves as we really are?
The fate of civilization and the evolution of humanity might rest on our answer to that question.
You stay classy, world.