The Shudder

The problem with self-knowledge is that it’s not an absolute thing. In effect, those who say they know themselves are kidding themselves. And those who say they don’t know themselves are also lying.


I like the way John Wenger over at Quantum Shifting says it. In a recent post, John tells the story of a client who told him, “Of course I’m good at empathising with my staff and understanding where they come from.” His next — naive, in his words — question was, “How would you know that?” The client blushed and a smile turned to worry.

And that’s the problem isn’t it? Even if I think I am a certain way, or have certain skills, I may be wrong. I may think I’m a great planner. I may not be one. I may believe my relationships are good. And yet they may not be what I think they are. I may be convinced that I cannot change. And, yet, that may not be true at all.

Nor can we trust the viewpoints of others. Even if I assiduously and sincerely ask for feedback, I’m likely to get a variety of views, filtered through others’ beliefs and experiences. We may be able to trust the patterns of the feedback we receive and use those patterns to challenge ourselves, but even there is a dilemma, especially if our reputation has become a form of groupthink, or it’s just our social package (e.g., sex, skin color, disability) that is being judged.

How, in fact, can we get past all of these biases to know the truth? Isn’t this just like Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which we are prisoners, chained since birth, confusing the shadows in front of us for reality?

Or perhaps, to use a more modern statement of the conundrum — the observer effect in physics — isn’t the very act of observing ourselves changing the phenomenon being observed?

Indeed, how can you or I know the elusive creatures that we truly are?

This can become a suddenly vital question, when people want, for example, the transparent truth from us, and we are not entirely sure what that is because we are not entirely sure who we are. One sees this problem pointedly in politics.

We all have to rely on a theory, no more, no less, and if you see that then you know the real shudder of pretending to stand on solid ground.


Unless, of course, there is something deeper down, and we’ve been there. Personally, I believe in that deeper down thing, that river, that archetype of the Self.

This isn’t a religion, or a comment on one. At least it is poetry, resorting to metaphor, and maybe that’s its only power (which is plenty). Every so often, if you, too, feel the shudder of finding one more time the emptiness of another theory about who you are, then you and I are tracking, and we can communicate. If, after the shudder, you find yourself alone on the shores of a deeper river, well, I’ve been on that sandbank, too, and perhaps we’ve even seen one another’s footsteps along the shore.

What’s to do but appreciate that moment? There’s no shame or despair in it. No one knows my secret truth except me. No one knows your sacred truth except you. What a miracle that we can emerge from any mental model of ourselves to find those flashing, brilliant waters.

And share them.

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  • Dear Dan,
    I really look forward to these dips in the existential pools that are your articles. What a refreshing change – to dive so deeply into don’t know mind.
    In the moments where I believe I truly escape fear (I know this because I feel none of the signs of grasping for control) it is such release and surrender to this place of not knowing.
    A pleasure to meet you on the shore,
    PS wonderful to see you referencing John Wenger’s outstanding work – another pilgrim….

  • Thank you, Louise…yes, I’d recognize those footprints anywhere….

  • Dan, I’m new to your blog and I now look forward to where you’ll be going next. This one reminds me of a distinction I’ve been working on being more mindful of. Whenever I assert or fear something aloud or just in my mind, I find it useful to consider whether it is simply A Belief or The Truth. More often than not it is “only” a belief, and my level of attachment to it is lighter. I really enjoy that feeling.

  • Lowell — Thank you so much for dropping by and leaving a comment. I agree with you about that “lightness” that comes with recognizing a belief as a belief, not as an absolute truth. Truth is really a statement of deep attachment isn’t it, and we should be very careful of that. Sometimes those truths, especially the ones we may tell ourselves about ourselves, have a way of becoming self-fulfilling prophecies. The very absolutism makes it so.

    I hope to hear from you again, Lowell. Best wishes to you!

  • Wonderful reflections Dan. Asymmetric insight, a fascinating rabbit hole to go down.

  • Thank you, John!

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