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Wisdom in Disguise

When self-consciousness stands in the way of our full potential.

We’ve been hiding something with great care and shame. We’ve been playing younger, acting innocent and naive. But under our shallow disguise, we’re wiser than we think we are.

What Ever Happened to Wisdom?

Ancient Greece gave birth to a great deal of wisdom. Philosophy was a pillar of society; seeking truth was a way to grow closer to the gods. The great Greek thinkers were storytellers, mouthpiece of the past.

They understood that wisdom was buried in the stories, and myths passed on through the ages. Generations, one after another, carefully carried messages of enlightenment covered in dust.

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved on stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”

— Pericles

The role of the elders, in Greek society, was valued and recognized. Their care and protection was once a legal obligation in the Greek capital.

“One of the laws of Solon, the great lawgiver of Athens who flourished in the sixth-century BCE, stipulated that if an Athenian did not care for his parents, he would lose his rights as a citizen, a fate worse than death for an Athenian.” ¹

These days, our technologies are so invasive and loud that the voice of wisdom gets lost in the noise. We live as if we invented everything. We forget the centuries of culture on which we stand. It’s a rather juvenile attitude — a naive way to perceive the world; an ego-centred view.

Could it be that we reject the past simply because we fear our own decrepitude? Are we masking the passing of time on both a physiological and psychological level, at once?

The Shame of Ageing

Since prehistoric times, humans have continuously altered their appearance with accessories, dyes and materials or all sorts. It was initially a symbolic act, i.e. a way to communicate. There was meaning behind the disguise; there was purpose. But eventually, our alterations became a self-conscious strategy to conceal our flaws and the hints of old age.

“The ancient Egyptian hairstylist was expected to be able to style hair, as well as cure baldness […] and cover up the signs of aging by dyeing grey hairs.” ²

During the Renaissance, men wore wigs, initially for hygienic reasons (lice and all that good stuff), but eventually to cover up premature baldness. King Louis XIV, who saw his hair thinning, went to employ forty wig makers at the royal court of Versailles, creating a new symbol of status and prestige. ³

There isn’t a definite timeline that depicts our transition into obsessive maintenance of our self-image, and perhaps there is no explicit progression. But one thing is clear: the mirror bears the blame.

Narcissus and the Inca Priests

The earliest forms of mirrors were pools of dark and still water, which provided a reasonably clear reflection to the observer. Archaeologists estimate that Inca priests used such pools to track the movement of the stars and constellations across the night sky. ⁴

Seemingly, what can be used to observe the vastness of the cosmos — to decode the heavens and produce meaning out of their incomprehensible contents — can as well generate an obsessive relationship to oneself.

The myth of Narcissus also takes place near a dark and reflective body of water. Thirsty after a summer hunt, Narcissus rests by a calm river. While drinking, the young man is captivated by his own reflection. He falls deeply in love with what he sees, as if it were someone else. Unable to contain his passion, his body eventually melts away and is transformed into a flower, to remain forever by the side of the river. By other accounts, knowing his love could not be reciprocated, Narcissus lost his will to live and committed suicide.

The story of Narcissus and the astronomical activities of the Inca priests reveal that one’s own reflection can well obscure the search for outward mysteries.

Our self-consciousness stands in the way of our full potential. We are so focussed on how we present ourselves to the world that we forget to look far and wide to actually see the world.

The Eyes Without a Face

Years ago, I was growing self-conscious. My skin was in bad shape, and it was getting increasingly difficult for me to look at other people in the eye.

I led a little experiment and started noticing the way I looked at them. I found out that my gaze naturally transported my concerns and my lack of self-confidence because I focussed too much on my own face and flaws. Like a half-hearted handshake, it sends a signal of diminished presence.

What people want is your full attention. That need takes its source in the early development of a child. Competent attention equals good care and love, while no attention or low levels of attention equals pain and rejection.

I went on experimenting with mentally erasing my face while in conversation so that only the function of seeing would remain.

I suddenly became the bringer of care and love instead of the seeker of attention. It was as if my implicit role had changed. Something had replaced my erased face, and was shining outwardly, warmly. It was the gift of complete presence, one of the highest of our human expressions.

My interactions with others rapidly changed (at least from my point of view), and I became genuinely more at ease, less self-conscious, more present to other human beings.

A Mere Thirst

Beyond all the avoidance and pretence, beyond our struggles with fleeting youth and flawed bodies, there is still hope for truth and authenticity. There is a thirst for wisdom as we’ve crossed the drylands of self-consciousness.

Let us bravely remove the craking masks of shame and reveal ourselves as we truly are: fragile and imperfect. Let us acknowledge the depth of the foundations of our world and value the voice of the elders. Let us embrace ageing as a slow infusion of wisdom that matures gently and openly to help us continually remember where we’ve been and who we are. Let us drop the disguise.


Nicolas
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