Posted in coronavirus, Fragments

Fragments on Fragments 5

For an introduction to this series, look here

I went in search of myself

The really strange thing about this saying is that it was written two and a half thousand years ago. What would it mean to go in search of yourself, before anyone had thought of counselling and psychotherapy, before ‘the unconscious’ was a thing? What might this self be, which he had gone in search of?

One possible answer is contained in another fragment, ‘All people ought to know themselves and to think well’. The search for yourself then is not about digging up the hidden parts of you, the forgotten fears and traumatic experiences, but about managing your thinking, acting and judging. The word I’ve translated as ‘to think well’ is ‘sophronein’ (Greek: σωφρονειν); it was an ancient Greek buzzword for what it meant to be a well-balanced and complete person. It implies discretion, moderation, self-control.

Heraclitus’ version of searching for the self needs to live alongside what we now know about the unconscious and all its works, but I think it still has something to offer us. It’s an invitation to find that place in ourselves which is less buffeted by the waves of our feelings, which can stand firm in a storm. That may be quite a search in itself, especially when events in and outside us seem overwhelming. Some of us may not be able to find it any more without a guide, a counsellor or soul friend who can help us on our journey. The important thing is the destination: there is no extra virtue attached to going it alone.

What is important, what we all need is to know that there is that place of balance in ourselves to which we can return. It is the place we go when we say ‘this is the sort of person I am: this is what I stand for, this is how I believe I should think and act’. If you’ve never thought before about spelling out those values that you hold, all the more reason to go in search of them.

Detail from Heirloom, part of the Broken Beauty residency in Southwark cathedral, 2018. Photo credit: Alison Clark

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