What is it like to be you?

Knowing who you are is very important. Many people are like strangers to themselves. They wonder what is the purpose of life, what it all means. Maybe you are like this too. These are common questions, and it is important to ask them.

Usually, when people talk of wisdom, they mean knowledge of the world around us. They mean knowing how to do things, how to make things happen. “Learning” usually means learning facts we didn’t know before, learning how to do things we couldn’t do before.

But there is another kind of wisdom. There is self-knowledge; knowing who you are, knowing what it is like to be you. This is sometimes forgotten, but it is important.

At the dawn of Europe’s philosophical tradition, the maxim “know thyself” was inscribed on the wall of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Socrates took this to heart. He said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Centuries later the Christian theologian John Calvin said that “without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God”. You don’t have to believe in God to agree with him that self-knowledge is a worthwhile pursuit.

The Zen Buddhists go even further. They say that the whole point of the religious life is attain “self-realization”, to know your true nature, who you really are. Zen masters ask you to find “your true face from before your parents were born”. By this they mean the innermost truth of your existence, something separate from your social or family identity or the opinions you hold. They say that all suffering comes from the fact that we are confused about our identity. If you know your true face, they say, you transcend suffering.

All this questioning about your “true face” is just another way of asking, “Who are you? And what is it like to be you?”