How invaluable is the possession of self-awareness? What damage do we do when self-awareness evaporates? I think of self-awareness as the rudder that steers us, on the best possible course, through our days and nights. It’s certainly harder to steer straight through high winds and tough times, but a tried and true rudder, fashioned out of thinking about others, holds fast. Three encounters, all on one day, brought this issue, once again, to my immediate forefront.

I was chatting with the cashier when checking out at the grocery. I always seek her out, both for her humor and her perspective. One of my purchases fell to the floor, and after picking it up and examining it, she asked if I wanted another. When I told her, without any thought, "no, no worry,” she stopped with her hand poised over the register and looked me in the eye. Shaking her head, the philosopher cashier softly replied: “Do you have any idea how fifty percent of the customers in this store would have reacted? Blow ups, loud voices, demands to see the manager. What gets me is their lack of self-awareness. Oh, if only they knew how they look and sound. Such an overwhelming sense of entitlement and in this world we live in….” I stood still, hoping for more, but didn’t expect this: “How is your book coming along? You know, growing up I thought I would be a writer, but I soon realized how vulnerable it makes you…how exposed you are.” And here she is, vulnerable to whomever comes her way, come what may. Her rudder appears in quite good shape, however, steadied by the flower in her hair.

Later that day I found myself in the one open line at the hardware store. A woman at the front, her items rung up, saw someone enter the store and put down her wallet. She began to talk to him about painting her house, how quickly he could get started, his price, whether they should get some supplies then and there, what she was up to, and on and very on. The line grew, and was now ten people deep. The cashier tried unsuccessfully to get her attention. Finally, satisfied with her conversation, she turned and asked him, “Where were we?” Where indeed??!! It was the cashier who apologized to every customer.

Taking a walk with my dog at dusk, looking at the houses on the quiet, deadend street on which I grew up, a familiar delivery man slowly made his way toward me. We waved at the same time and he pulled over, rolling down his window: “How are you? How’s your mom? Phew. The lady at my last stop has already called the store to file a complaint. When she was signing the receipt, some ink got on her hand. She was irate.” After he petted the dog and talked about the weather, he drove on -- a nice, hardworking fellow bitten by another's self-absorption.

John Seabrook, in the December 3 issue of The New Yorker magazine, concludes his article, "Glass Half Full," about singer Aimee Mann and the “pursuit of happiness” this way: “Mann’s last word on the subject came in response to a question from the audience: What is the biggest barrier to happiness? ‘Lack of self-awareness,' Mann replied.”

Our relationships can flourish only if we cultivate self-awareness. Only I can stand guard over myself...watching and listening...correcting as needed.

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