A desire for self-knowledge can bring with it what I call the dark attic effect. Venture up there and turn on the light and who knows what you’ll encounter. Imagine all the dust and nests and hidden creatures lurking in the darkness. Reason enough to avoid climbing into the attic in the first place, right?
But then nothing changes. The darkness, and what thrives in it, remains.
The initial deterrent to self-knowledge can be that if we turn the critical lens inward and honestly examine our own mentality, who knows what disturbing thoughts and traits might be uncovered. We all want to be our best, but is self-knowledge a necessary and dark path toward that goal?
Experience suggests that it is necessary and often eye-opening. But it doesn’t have to be dark. In fact, it can be inspiring.
About twenty-five years ago I was self-employed and earning a modest living, but didn’t feel I was growing sufficiently. Money wasn’t the underlying issue; it was that I felt stuck. I sensed there was another level to achieve in my life that would be more fulfilling but I also felt it wasn’t going to come from the outside. I wasn’t wanting to change careers or get lots of new clients, yet I knew I needed to grow. The question was: in what way?
What came to mind one day was an article I once read that described three stages of growth: self-knowledge, humility and love. In describing the absence of self-knowledge, the author of the article ‘The Way’ (from a collection of writings by Mary Baker Eddy), said something that struck a chord with me: “Mental darkness is senseless error, neither intelligence nor power, and its victim is responsible for its supposititious presence.”
I was responsible? That was a wake-up call. All along I’d been yearning, praying, to understand what was missing in my life. What more did I need to see or do?
I found out the next weekend at a business conference. The man chairing the conference and conducting the main meeting was a successful businessman who had agreed to provide, voluntarily, what guidance and assistance he could to the attendees. He simply wanted to be of service.
His personal greeting as we entered the hall and the sincere and instructive conversations he had with each of us throughout the day were unlike most business transactions I’d encountered. He was extraordinarily humble, unselfish, and tireless. He stood to gain nothing from the conference except the pure satisfaction of helping others, and there was plenty of that going on. He loved what he was doing and it showed.
On the three-hour drive home I kept trying to nail down what it was he knew or had or expressed that was so inspiring and that far-exceeded a professional manner. Whatever quality he naturally displayed that day I wanted to understand and develop for myself.
A few moments later a word came to mind, and not one that I’d conjured up. In fact, when the word grace popped into my thought I wasn’t sure why. What I was certain of was that at that same moment the mental darkness, or ignorance, vanished.
Grace, I then realized, summed up what I’d been overlooking. It includes humility, patience, and unselfishness, and I felt a conviction that it was just what I needed to develop in order to grow.
Twenty-five years later now and my growth continues. I wish I could say I exude grace at every moment of every day, but frankly I have a ways to go. Thanks to that businessman, though, I have a good example to recall of grace in action, and a deeper sense that it’s ultimately a spiritual quality from a divine source -- and always available.
I can’t say this growth has made me gung-ho about attic cleaning projects. They’re still low on the to-do list.
Self-knowledge is a different story. As a first step to spiritual growth and a happier and healthier life, it tops the to-do list. Self-knowledge isn't about a discouraging encounter with mental darkness. It’s about awakening to the inspiring and ever-available antidote for it.