The insufficiency of self-awareness

This caught my eye:

But my favorite thing about “BoJack Horseman” is how badly BoJack wants to think of himself as—and even, if he’s desperate enough, wants to be—a good person. Just tell me I’m good is the constant undertow of his motivation. He doesn’t want to be cool or happy. He wants to be a good person, in spite of all the genuinely awful things he’s done. He’s ashamed of himself, sure. But he tries to disguise his failures as successes, as cocktail-party anecdotes and, if necessary, as lessons learned.

He has this exchange with Diane, which runs exactly parallel to the character vs. actions bit from “Mistress America” (BoJack knows the zeitgeist!):

BoJack: But do you think I’m a good person, deep down?

Diane: …I don’t know if I believe in ‘deep down.’

“BoJack” is a pretty scathing portrayal of the insufficiency of self-awareness. BoJack knows what his problems are and states them frequently and with often-hilarious bluntness, and it doesn’t help. As a different family entertainment once taught us, knowing is half the battle—but it turns out not to be the half where the battle is won.

I’ve watched both seasons of BoJack Horseman (and enjoyed them immensely), but you don’t need to in order to understand the point. Simply acknowledging your weaknesses doesn’t justify them, much less put you on the path to correcting them.

Has this always been a thing, or is it something recent? I’ve sat through countless sermons which fit into a standard call-and-response pattern—”You guys don’t pray/read your Bible/volunteer/give enough”, “True, true, we don’t pray/read our Bibles/volunteer/give enough”. And the transaction is then complete. Never have I heard one which starts, “So, after last week’s exhortations are you praying/reading your Bibles/volunteering/giving more?”, and I have to imagine it’s because the answer is obvious—and, in fact, to ask the question is to misunderstand the true purpose of the exchange.

As the writer says, “knowing is half the battle—but it turns out not to be the half where the battle is won.” To complete the thought: doing is the half where the battle is won (or lost). Doubling down on self-awareness is just a way of putting off engagement.

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5 thoughts on “The insufficiency of self-awareness

  1. Great question. My perception: there is a lot of un-selfawareness out there. This is why a chunk of people goes to therapy, frankly. But any therapist will also tell you, there’s a point at which the client knows what the problem is and that’s the point at which s/he has either to accept the situation OR do the work to change it — and most clients will not do the work. Therapy more often has the effect of allowing people to accept the problem (which is not necessarily bad, of course) than of getting them to change their lives. I imagine it’s the same with preaching. True change comes from deep inside but it’s hard to know how to push that button.

  2. Servetus,

    The question is largely prompted by the recent buzz (at American Conservative and a few other places) about Rod Dreher’s proposed Benedict Option. In fact, I’ve been using the various online exchanges about the proposal to test some techniques for organizing such information into a Wiki format—more on that if it works out.

    What frustrates me as I follow the discussion is what always frustrates me, what Tolstoy nailed when he said “Everyone wants to change the world but no one wants to change themselves.” Or perhaps this refinement–everyone wants the world to change in such a way that it will change them for the better with no effort on their part. I often find myself cheering as one or another deep flaw is isolated and identified, but then immediately wonder: so, why aren’t you trying out ways to correct them? What are you waiting for?

    You’re right, though, it’s hard to know how to push that button. Worse, I strongly believe that it heavily depends on where you are right now and how you got there—what works for one person may be absolutely no help for the next. My vague hope is that we can learn how to talk about these things in a way that will at least inspire people to work at finding their own path through the maze, perhaps even pass along some path-finding techniques.

  3. Thanks for the links; I was not aware of the discussion.

    I think you’re right that every person receives a discussion differently — this why blanket moral prescriptions aren’t especially useful. I think this a lot in synagogue on the High Holidays — there’s usually at least one sermon / dvar Torah that has to do with observance (because one theme of the holidays is repentance / return). It’s interesting to observe who preaches “be more observant!” (usually the more liberal denominations) and who preaches “be observant, but don’t be hard on yourself if you can’t be perfect” (often ultraorthodox rabbis). Both of those messages have been meaningful to me, but at different times in my life. And if I hear the wrong message at the wrong time, it’s really hard to make myself keep on listening.

    Also, apart from the whole context issue, people are invested in their special snowflake status and we often don’t want to believe that the general prescriptions should apply to us. When I used to lecture on the pre-Reformation penitential system in the Catholic Church and the attached cosmology, there were always a dozen students who’d say “well, what if this [odd thing] happened? Where would the person end up?” and my answer was always, “that was never a question that an average medieval Catholic would ask. They assumed that their circumstances were more like than unlike those of others, and so the general rule would apply to most people.” It’s hard for us to get our mind around that these days, we always expect that extenuating circumstances are an explanation and possibly an excuse.

  4. Servetus,

    … people are invested in their special snowflake status and we often don’t want to believe that the general prescriptions should apply to us.

    Amen! Until recently I thought this was just a modern self-indulgence, a shirking of responsibility that those in times gone by were more willing and able to shoulder. But I’ve just read a book (Mediated, by Thomas de Zengontita) which persuaded me that there is more to the story, that something has changed in the past 100 years which actually eliminated the “general rule,” that now everything is optional—including what used to be the general prescription—and we haven’t yet figured out how to sort through the options. My next post will be about that book.

  5. I’ll be interested to hear what you have to say. I’m guessing that this is in part a long-term consequence of the inalienable rights discourse, which postulates that people are created by G-d as they are and have certain rights.

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