I remember the first time I felt a bit dissatisfied with self-awareness. I was a high school student who had been assigned to read Long Day’s Journey Into Night in my English class. I read over and over again about how honored this play was, how many awards it had won, and how Eugene O’Neill was feted and praised for having such acute awareness of the dysfunction of his own family of origin, where his father had wasted his talent by playing the same character for decades and took it out on his co-dependent family with every member of their family being exposed for all of their flaws and their inability to come to grips with reality. All this self-examination, brutally exposed on the pages of a play, was well and good, but like the play, it didn’t go anywhere. The same author of that play later disowned his daughter for marrying Charlie Chaplain and apparently fell into the same sort of family dysfunction that he had so ruthlessly skewered as a playwright. All that self-awareness that was praised so highly couldn’t help him to actually do better.
This is by no means an isolated occurrence. One finds it especially present when one looks at music from people who have–whether fairly or not–acquired a reputation for confessional storytelling in their music. I don’t wish to single anyone out by naming and shaming them, because it is a widespread phenomenon, but one of the frustrating thing about listening to albums and especially the discographies of artists is that one frequently finds artists who are very good at describing where they are and understanding the worse aspects of their nature. I cannot criticize this sort of tendency of artistic souls to cold-bloodedly expose the worst angels of their nature, as it is certainly a tendency I have myself as a writer and artist, and any faults with that sort of approach are ones I not only see in others but also share in myself. When one sees artists record album after album where they point out the same flaws in themselves but never seem to get better, wrapping their self-examination with self-loathing but without improvement, there is a sense of futility and vanity about the matter. What is the point of knowing what one is if one is not motivated to improve or get better?
I do not mean to imply by pointing out the insufficiency of self-awareness, and the self-examination that leads to it, that such tasks are not useful or beneficial. They are. We can better understand their value, but also their limits, if we turn from self-examination as it is seen by sensitive an artistic souls who are stuck in a rut and unable to turn self-knowledge into actionable insights by looking at things from the point of view of physical chemistry. One of the key problems of physical chemistry is the nature of the electron. Electrons are small enough that they exhibit properties of waves and particles and have a complex nature that is difficult to understand. As the 20th century progressed, it became clear that electrons were sufficiently small that it was impossible to simultaneously determine the location of electron or determine such qualities as velocity and momentum and acceleration. Seeking to determine the motion of the electron made it impossible to understand the position of the particle, and vice versa.
This is a relevant problem for people. I remember the last sermon I ever attended at Worldwide Church of God on Pentecost in 1995 in a suburb of Orlando, Florida, where I had gone with my mother and my maternal grandparents. The gentleman who gave the morning sermon message sought to use a graph to prove a spiritual point and ended up proving a different spiritual point than he had intended. The point was that rather than viewing what was acceptable as being a particular simple shape like everything that was within a circle, one had to examine that some people who were somewhat close to the center were moving away from that center, while others were moving towards that center from a point outside of the circle. Indeed, it was true that many of the people in that room, who were at the time mostly obedient to God, were moving away from God while others, whose lives were at that time less godly, were in the process of being brought towards Him, even in such an inopportune time. Self-examination and the resulting self-awareness and self-knowledge we gain from this, is an understanding of our position. That information is valuable, to be sure, but it is not complete. We also need to know aspects of our motion, like where we are going, what progress we are making towards where we are headed, and our acceleration or deceleration or momentum involved. And knowing all of this is preparatory to doing what needs to be done to get where we want to go, to change what needs to be changed. Without that progress and without that the movement the knowledge itself is not sufficient and is painfully and pointlessly incomplete.