Saturday, June 27, 2009

You are what you do: Job Impressions, Serial Killers and our Different Selves

photocopier at the workplace

What you do for a living often reflects how you are seen and responded to in society. It is an immediate quick judgment that one makes on the other, and so the question of what one does becomes what one is.

Most of our judgments on professions are based on stereotypes that we and society have accumulated over time. It even spills over to personal characteristics that we attribute to the person. For example, when we think of an accountant or lawyer various characteristics are immediately triggered. Meeting psychologists makes us extra-cautious as we assume they may analyze us and dig out our flaws and emotional problems. And a clown or comedians ought to be funny at all times, and we are shocked when we see them in their serious and bad moods.

It really comes down to age-old philosophical questions of appearance and reality. In Plato's Republic, Socrates is asked how one can recognize a just person, how one knows for sure that he or she is just; they can be evil and unethical and yet project a false and deluding image of perfect justice. As Kierkegaard states the internal is not the external, that many people wear masks and keep their secrets away from the public consciousness.

Pretense and role-playing has become one of the major skills of serial killers, for example. They can fill us with a false sense of security and win our trust to our own peril. In many cases, we are shocked and stunned of how a friendly and helpful individual could have fooled us and hidden away his real serial killer face, while keeping the bodies stashed up in his basement.

The confusion probably exists because we end up having or creating various selves. People relate or get to know only a few at a time. Our co-workers get to see one side of us, and since we want to give off an image of a responsible and keen employee, we would try our best to protect that image. This may slightly alter if one of the co-workers wins our trust, and we open up to that person and share confidential information that rings truer to who we are.

Equally people may relate to one another as a sibling, husband or wife, child, friend, and there is not always a complete overlap among each of these personalities. We may not use the same language and innuendo with our spouse than with an old high-school friend. Shared experiences bind us, and this bond reflects various different personality characteristics, and, over time, we perfect that image to become consistent so that we can get closer to our - and society's - view on what constitutes an ideal parent, friend, son or daughter.

So like the tip of the iceberg one's profession may give us an inkling of what the person is like, but the larger pieces are actually hidden beneath the surface of the water. One should not rush to a rash judgment but be open to explore and dive in to get to know the person a little better; yet to fully know a person may be an impossible feat as we generally have a hard time figuring ourselves out.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Know Thyself and the Dangers of Too Much Knowledge

Greek inscirption of "Know Thyself" at Delphi Temple

“Know Thyself” was the inscription in the temple of Apollo at Delphi. However, its meaning may have been quite different from today's understanding of the phrase. We live in a world where individualism and self-assertion and -expression are inbuilt mechanisms and have become the lens through which we see and understand the world.

It seems we are breastfed this kind of knowledge, and it is reinforced and emphasized during the school years and through the mass media of television and the movie industry. It may not be so in various other collectivist cultures and traditions, often collectively referred to as the “East”, but through globalization and the popular entertainment industry, this information or paradigm has been seeping through and influencing other cultures to a strong degree.

If we put the meaning of “Know Thyself” into the Greek conception of humanity and the world, we will realize that they understood this in quite a different manner. Whether the Greeks actually believed in the mythical gods is not always clear, but they perceived a much closer tie of the individual with the family and community.

When Socrates was asked to choose between death or exile, he immediately chose the former as exile would have brought unspeakable suffering to one who strongly identifies himself with his culture and people. In fact, the modern notion of individuality did not exist until after the Renaissance and for an ancient Greek, each person was intricately defined through one's nation, family, and status. Each of those terms, with the inclusion of fate and destiny, are but extensions or the extremities of the individual body. One could not exist apart from the other.

“Know Thyself” would mean something like “know thy limits and limitations.” Humans ought to temper their inflated pride and not be blinded by arrogance and vanity but should find their humble nest in the complex harmonious order and unity that exists in the universe, a universe driven by forces unknown and unintelligible to the human mind.

Of course, one could also argue with a mystic understanding of the term, the realization that the self cannot exist apart from everyone else, that all is a reflection of the divine that exists in equal measure in all living - and perhaps even non-living things - as is the case with the philosophies of Neo-Platonism as well as Hinduism.

This idea of the dangers of knowing too much and of drawing limits to human ambition has also been expressed in the famous work of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. There a curious and highly ambitious scientist wants to play God and creates life. This experiment, however, has drastic consequences for him and others and completely ruins him and his family. As a result, he warns others of avoiding the same kind of mistakes he has made.

This was an interesting message in a romantic climate where most poets and writers were pursuing the higher and occult arts to attain ultimate godlike knowledge. Yet the voice of Mary Shelley is one of caution and of knowing where one's limits lie, just like the inscription at the Delphi.