Someone once told me something very interesting that I had never thought of before. There are, he said, three sorts of things that are known about us.
First, those things about each of that only we (and, of course, God) know about. These are our darkest secrets, for instance, or certain very personal desires, thoughts and feelings that we won’t ever want to share with others, not even our closest friends and relatives. It’s just too embarrassing for anyone else to know. What would others think of us if they learnt the truth that lies behind the seemingly pious fronts that we often stage-manage? What if they came to know, for example, about our forbidden sexual longings or all the many terrible things we sometimes wish would happen to some people! We’ll probably take these secrets with us to our graves without a single other person ever learning about them.
Secondly, those things about us that we and other people know about. These include, for instance, the sort of work that we do, where we stay, the books we like to read, or an incident that happened in our lives—say an accident we met with, or an award that we received—and so on.
Thirdly—and this is something I had never before considered—are things about us that we don’t know but others do. These include, for instance, our facial expressions when we speak (unless, of course, we are in the habit of speaking with a mirror held before our faces!). Or, our body language—the messages the visible parts of our bodies send out when we are in the presence of others, which they, but not us, may be able to easily notice and interpret. Or, the complexes and neuroses that we may suffer from that, we may not be aware of (and that we would hate to admit if we were), but which other people can easily discover from our behavior.
Another aspect of this ‘third dimension’ of our selves is what people think about us, based on the impressions they draw from our presence and behavior. These impressions can often be very different from our self-perceptions. We might, for instance, think of ourselves as very kind and considerate, but that’s not exactly how everyone else might see us. They might judge the way we come across to them in a very different light.
Sometimes, we are totally blind to our shortcomings that stare others, even perfect strangers, in the face. In fact, it’s not often the case that we even recognize that we have any shortcomings at all. All too often, we brazenly rationalize them away, at the same time as we can’t get ourselves to stop obsessing about other people’s drawbacks, whether real and imaginary. It’s not always that we willingly choose to ignore our faults, though. Often, it’s because we can’t see our own ‘faces’—not just our physical faces, of course, but the way we truly are and appear so to others as, because we are so used to seeing ourselves in the particular way that we have carefully cultivated for our comfort.
This ‘third dimension’ of ourselves that others know but we don’t is something that we rarely, if ever, consider to learn about. But as long as we continue to lack awareness of this dimension of our reality, we can never fully understand ourselves. This awareness is, then, necessary for fuller self-awareness. It is also essential if we want to improve ourselves. *
If as individuals we sincerely want to learn things about ourselves that others know about but we don’t, we have plenty of opportunities to do so. We have our friends and relatives, for instance, to turn to and ask. Of course, for this to work out, we need to enthusiastically welcome the prospect of being confronted with facts and opinions about us that might threaten our deeply-held self-perceptions. We must be ready to accept that these might challenge, in very fundamental ways, the way we like to think of ourselves. We must be willing to face the possibility that we may come out of the process realizing that we aren’t exactly as wonderful as we thought we were.
This willingness to see ourselves in the mirror that someone else holds to us and the possibility that this might radically challenge our deeply-rooted self-images is the price we need to pay for greater self-awareness and for the opportunity to learn about some of our weaknesses from others so that we can work on improving on, or overcoming, them.
Not everyone person we approach to learn more about the third dimension of ourselves might, of course, be willing to be honest with us. Some might fear that if they tell us exactly what they know or feel about us, we might get hurt or even angry. If they really spoke their minds, they might feel, we might stop talking to them forever or do something even more drastic.
It is only someone who is genuinely concerned for our welfare and truly wants to see us grow and blossom who can be straight and honest in telling us about our ‘third dimension’, and doing so in an appropriate manner. The manner in which he or she speaks to us about ourselves is of crucial importance. While there’s never a dearth of people who are more than willing to speak their minds to us about us in a hurtful, vengeful manner, eager to use this as an opportunity to put us down and make us feel small, it isn’t always easy to find people who truly wish us well and are willing to point out our faults in the right way and with the right intention—not to demean us, but to make us aware of our shortcomings so that we can work on them for our own good. *
Knowing more about what others know or feel about us is as important for individuals as it is for social groups or communities. It can help individuals as well as communities to become more self-aware and to inspire and enable them to work on improving themselves.
That’s something I realised yesterday, when I did a little experiment with my friend Samuel yesterday. Samuel is a pastor—a Protestant Christian priest. He asked me to tell him what I thought of Christians and Christianity. He wanted me to be brutally honest. “Speak your mind,” he said. “I keep hearing only goody-goody things—from Christians themselves, about how Christians are supposedly all very ‘kind’ and ‘compassionate’ and ‘service-minded’. That’s a dominant Christian self-perception. But what I’d like to know is how people of other faiths perceive Christians and what they believe in.”
I tried to do what Samuel had requested as best and as honestly as I could. I was blunt and to-the-point. I mentioned some good things that I felt about Christians and their faith. But since that wasn’t really what Samuel wanted to hear, I spoke for an hour or more about the other side of the story. All along, Samuel listened very patiently, taking copious notes. And at the end of it, he was very grateful.
It’s rare to find such openness in matters of religion, especially these days, when religion is so readily deployed as a weapon to foment hate and bloodshed and to aggressively promote supremacist agendas. Samuel honestly wanted to know how a non-Christian like me thought about the faith and the faith-community that he identified with. There were dimensions about both of these, he knew, that he wasn’t aware of, but that a non-Christian might be.
It wasn’t out of mere intellectual curiosity that Samuel wanted to learn about the ‘third dimension’ of Christians and Christianity—the things that a non-Christian like I knew or felt about them that many Christians themselves weren’t aware of or even didn’t want to recognize. Such learning, he explained, was necessary if he and the community he identified with were to become as aware of their shortcomings as they already were of their goodness, shortcomings that weren’t visible to them, but were clearly apparent to others. In that way, he said, they might be better equipped to work to improve themselves.
In a world where religiously-defined communities often see themselves as God’s chosen people, laying claim to knowing the mind of God and even waging war against others on this count, such openness and humility, such eagerness to introspect, and such enthusiasm to invite constructive critique from others is, of course, rare. Yet, it is a pressing necessity in today’s world, characterized by increasing interaction as well as conflict between people who claim to follow different faith traditions. Focussing on their ‘third dimensions’ can immensely help communities in addressing their own drawbacks—instead of, as is all too often the case, those of others. At the same time, it can enable them to understand their religions in more meaningful and truly ennobling ways.
Exploring the ‘third dimension’, with each religious community gaining from awareness of facts and perceptions about it from other communities, ought to be a central focus of ongoing efforts to promote inter-community or interfaith dialogue, which has become a pressing necessity in today’s world that is being increasingly torn apart by conflicts stoked by religious supremacists.
Imagine what wonders might happen if religious ‘leaders’ from every faith background were to make what Samuel did yesterday a regular habit!
Instead of seeking to put down others and trumpet their claims of the supposed supremacy of their respective faiths, imagine if religious ‘leaders’ went around requesting people of other faiths to point out to them what they saw as the shortcomings of their people and religious traditions—to show, as Samuel asked me to yesterday, a mirror to their faces!
Imagine if religious ‘leaders’ used the knowledge and awareness gained through this experiment not to engage in polemical and real, physical, bloody battles with others, but, instead, to improve themselves!
What a very different world that would be!
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