In the Undiscovered Self Carl Jung writes, “There can be no self-knowledge based on theoretical assumptions, for the object of self-knowledge is an individual – a relative exception and an irregular phenomenon.” [Whenever I read Jung, I find myself staggered by the depth of intellect he brings to his work – even though I do not agree with some of his fundamental concepts!]
If Jung isn’t your cuppa, Monty Python address the same point in The Life of Brian: Brian tells an assembled multitude gathered outside his mum’s house, “You are all individuals!” to which the adoring crowd shouts back with one voice, “We are all individuals!” – until a lone voice pipes up, “I’m not!”
So, here is one of the essential paradoxes at the heart of personal growth and human development: on one hand, we need to seek out general principles in search of answers that will help us “to understand ourselves”, while on the other, we know that many of these general principles will simply be wrong for our own unique expression of being an “irregular phenomenon”.
To approach any personal growth work without holding this paradox in mind will ultimately lead to disappointment, sometimes embarrassment and even humiliation. The phenomenon of the utterly convinced ‘apostle’ of whatever faith (religious, philosophical, psychological or scientific) trying desperately to convince us that he/she “has the answer” is often a product of a profound need for reassurance (i.e. the desire to find safety in numbers) or a personal denial of the inner contradictions arising when trying to follow the generalised principles of the adopted creed.
If we allow ourselves to hold the paradox without trying to resolve it, we soon discover that finding out that something “doesn’t work” is still useful learning. We can deconstruct each ‘negative’ learning experience to find why it didn’t work and then assess future learning opportunities against this benchmark. If we find a learning experience valuable, we can do the same process. In this way, we can begin to define our own unique path of human development, all the time recognising that there are going to be some wrong turns along the way and treating each new experience with due respect and a pinch of salt.
For me, my stumbling block is always belief: if belief is fundamental to knowing the truth of something, I simply count myself out. (I don’t do faith!) However, give me something I can experiment with, something I can experience the truth of directly – well, then I am interested.
Practical experience is one of my key benchmarks – what about yours?
In the next few days, why not take a look at a learning experience you have participated in recently – if you found it worked for you, what benchmark(s) did the experience satisfy? If not, why didn’t it work? Then use these as a basis for choices in the future.