Our ‘True’ Profile

“No man can draw his own “profile” correctly, as Thoreau said: “It is as hard to see oneself as to look backwards without turning round.” The truth is that our friends—and our enemies—always know us better than we know ourselves. There are, to be sure, a few corrective touches to their picture of us which only we can add, and these, as a rule, are concerned with our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses.
It is, for example, axiomatic, that we should all think of ourselves as being more sensitive than other people because, when we are insensitive in our dealings with others, we cannot be aware of it at the time: conscious insensitivity is a self-contradiction.
Secondly, we can hardly avoid thinking that the majority of persons we meet have stronger characters than we. We cannot observe others making choices; we only know what, in fact, they do, and how, in fact, they behave. Provided their actions are not criminal, their behaviour not patently vicious, and their performance of their job in life reasonably efficient, they will strike us as strong characters. But nobody can honestly think of himself as a strong character because, however successful he may be in overcoming them, he is necessarily aware of the doubts and temptations that accompany every important choice.”

From WH Auden’s translator’s note to Dag Hammarskjöld’s Markings, translated from the Swedish by Leif Sjöberg and WH Auden (1964)

3 thoughts on “Our ‘True’ Profile

  1. He is right about the areas in which we know ourselves better than others know us. I wonder what specifics Auden (or Thoreau) would provide for others knowing us better than we know ourselves. I suppose I tend to think of sensitivity and doubt as in some way fundamental, so those two features alone are enough for me to reject the general claim that others know me better than I know myself (and vice versa).

    My own experience is that other people only seem fully alive to me when I get a window into their sensitivities and doubts, because this, in my own experience of myself, is where the life is. Much of my favorite literature I love precisely because it makes these sensitivities and doubts vivid.


    • Agree wholeheartedly with your second paragraph; your first, well, I’m not at all sure. There was the longest of times when I shared your view. Not that I disagree, I simply don’t know. There are variables. So many variables.


    • As a skeptic, I nearly always endorse “I don’t know” as the best conclusion. The thought that sensitivity and doubt have a fundamental status resonates with my experience thus far. I have no grounds to claim that they will continue to do so.

      I’d love to hear more specifics about what has moved you away from the view.


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