Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Book Review: Do You Know Yourself?

Do You Know Yourself? by Archimandrite Symeon
For the first week of Great Lent, in between the hours of church services and sleeping we had a decent amount of time on our hands. I spent it reading.

One of the books I finished was this one, by Archimandrite Symeon Kragiopoulos, called Do You Know Yourself? Psychological Problems and the Spiritual Life. The author is a pretty prominent figure in Greece who founded several monasteries. The talks which made up this book were made in the early 1970s but are still relevant today, if not more so.

Fr. Symeon’s main thesis is that many people are not making spiritual progress because they are stuck in psychological ruts. The truth is that we have very little understanding of ourselves. Look at a pond: it may seem calm and tranquil on the surface, but stir it up and who knows what might come up? As the holy prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is deep beyond all things.”

In order to help us overcome these psychological “blocks,” Fr. Symeon uses the work of the psychologist Karen Horney, who deviated from her teacher Freud by situtating the cause of neuroses in how people interact with one another. He cites extensively her book Our Inner Conflicts, which might be helpful to read in order to better understand the concepts in the book, but is not necessary (I didn’t read it).

According to Horney, and by extension Fr. Symeon, the three flawed “movements” that people make in relation to each other are: moving toward people, moving against people, and moving away from people. Fr. Symeon spends the most time developing the first and the third movements, apparently seeing the harm in moving against others in a domineering fashion to be obvious to everyone. Most people manifest all three of these movements in various situations in life.

The first movement comes from a distortion of love. We all feel the need for love and affection and so naturally desire to be with others. But this can easily turn into an attachment or obsession. Many people do good deeds and seek to serve others merely in order to hear the words “Good job!” from them. Or they focus on how many “likes” they get on Facebook, or how many people look at their blog. Countless young people, addicted to love, go from relationship to relationship, trying to find a partner that can solve their problems. If things don’t go well from such people there could be outbursts of hostility and other bad consequences.

The opposite tendency is to shut oneself off from others. Out of a desire to be self-sufficient, to be independent, or to simply do whatever one wants, this person builds an emotional wall around himself, not wanting to be beholden to anyone. Tragically, people who do open themselves to others often end up being burnt by them or suffering a nervous breakdown. In failing to have a “correct stance” towards others, we become psychologically (and spiritually) unhealthy.

Fr. Symeon then turns to what he calls the “idealized image,” a false view of oneself. One can be merely delusional, but oftentimes we compare the idealized images we have with ourselves with the reality, and either beat ourselves up over not being good enough or engaging in an obsessive desire for perfection. (A concrete example of this is the problems many women have with body image in modern society.) One can even start projecting his own shortcomings on others and cause quite a mess. There are a variety of ways the idealized image rules over us, creating a “dictatorship of the self.”

The only way out of this, the only way to destroy these idealized images and have a correct stance before people, is to face reality and humble oneself. You must ask yourself: “Could it be that I don’t see things well? Could it be that I'm led astray? Could it be that I'm not acting correctly?” Fr. Symeon assures us that  “The weakest, the most sinful human being  when he decides to let himself go to God’s grace  he’ll be redeemed.”

Do You Know Yourself? makes for excellent Lenten reading, and I highly recommend it. It is available at Holy Trinity Bookstore and other fine booksellers.

Do You Know Yourself? Psychological Problems and the Spiritual Life
Archimandrite Symeon Kragiopoulos
Translated by Monk Cosmas (Shartz)
Divine Ascent Press, 2010, 189pp.

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