“Searching Inward,” Ensign, Nov. 1971, 63
Beneath the slopes of Mt. Parnassus, the ancient Greek town of Delphi once flourished. Within the town, carved in gold letters on a marble temple, were three inscriptions said to contain the greatest wisdom known to man. The simplest of these inscriptions read merely, “Know thyself.”
Although centuries have left little kinship between the space-age world and the tranquil, glen-harbored Delphi, the search for self-knowledge has not ceased to occupy human beings. If anything, time has intensified the challenge of the Delphic inscription.
Self-understanding was never an easy prize, and this is particularly true today. We live in a rapid, changing world; an environment of scheduled necessity, transient phenomena, attention-diverting advertising and news. David Riesman, Erik Erikson, Hendrik Ruitenbeek, and numerous other sociologists warn of an identity crisis—the desperate search of millions for a stable identity and peace not offered by material things.
Revealed truths concerning man’s origin and destiny give the Latter-day Saint a much sounder basis for self-knowledge than most people have. A testimony of the simple scripture “Man was also in the beginning with God” (D&C 93:29) should add peace to any life. Nevertheless, even dedicated Church members sometimes permit themselves a “years-are-slipping-by-so-fast” despair, complaining at the shallowness of life, worrying over the mundane.
It need not be so. Only when we fail to search inward and find the beauty of our divinely sired spirits does frustration become a habit. Contrarily, a greater understanding of our premortal heritage and possible postmortal inheritance enables us to view daily affairs in the light of eternity. Frustration diminishes.
“The greatest lesson you can learn is to know yourselves,” taught Brigham Young. “… You will then begin to learn more perfectly the things of God.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 8, p. 334.) The Prophet Joseph Smith used similar words in his King Follett Discourse at Nauvoo: “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves.” (Documentary History of the Church, vol. 6, p. 303.) The spiritual power and serenity of our great leaders come not only through a knowledge of God, but also through a closely related knowledge of self.
Self-knowledge is likewise an important element in the process of perfection. To his people in the Old World and later in the New, the Savior distilled the message of his Sermon on the Mount with the commandment, “Be ye therefore perfect.” (Matt 5:48. See also 3 Ne. 12:48.) To reach that ideal, we must know ourselves, for until we are conscious of our weaknesses, we cannot correct them; until we know our strengths, we cannot use them well.
The discovery of self is a profoundly spiritual experience, one that is possible for anyone willing to learn. It comes neither in a mystical, magical manner nor by casual effort, but it is made possible only through practical, concrete means. What are some of these means?
1. Diaries and journals. One of the simplest ways to greater self-understanding is to keep a personal journal. A journal becomes a map for inward searching, a net to capture moments of spiritual insight, a treasury of thoughts and plans. It can be used a thousand ways—as a continuous letter of encouragement and caution to oneself, as a podium for argument and discussion about problems, as a planning table for goals. Try sketching yourself as others see you, or bear your testimony in writing. With imagination, the possibilities and rewards of keeping such a record are endless.
A diary can also be a key to inward searching, if only because it forces a daily meeting with self. “We should every night call ourselves to an account,” wrote the Roman statesman and philosopher Seneca. An elaborate record of daily life is not necessary; just a few lines will serve to review a day’s performance. For the rest of mortality, diaries will prove valuable in checking dates or surveying changes in personal attitude.
2. Self-questioning. The housewife who feels that her life is in a small box wedged between an oven, washer, and three peppy children may seek escape in television viewing or at a swimming pool, social club, or theater. The businessman, teacher, or scientist may get a “wedged-in” feeling and seek escape in the mountains or on the golf course.
A certain amount of such escape is necessary for everyone, but wouldn’t it be better sometimes if we escaped into ourselves? A quiet hour of self-examination, goal-setting, and meditation on the eternal purpose of life can be far more therapeutic than the back nine.
“Fine,” you may say. “If a quiet hour ever opens up in my busy schedule, I’ll use it.” This approach is certain to fail. Self-examination is like prayer. As Brigham Young said, “You will find that those who wait till the Spirit bids them pray, will never pray much on this earth.” (JD, vol. 13, p. 155.) Firmly commit a definite hour each week, find a quiet place, and hang a sign on the door: “Worries and Trifles Not Allowed.” Only then will such an hour pay at overtime rates.
Even when time and place are right, introspection can be difficult without a definite plan. For this purpose a list of actual questions could be used. Try writing answers to the following questions:
—What is the source of my happiness? Am I happiest when engaged in self-directed activity? Or do my greatest joys come when serving others?
—Do I know Jesus Christ? Does his gospel excite me? Do I have an active, hard-working faith in the Savior, or am I a lip-service Saint?
—Have I a genuine love of all men? Not just tolerance, but “the pure love of Christ”?
—Are my duties in the priesthood [or as a mother] being fulfilled, even magnified? How about home teaching?
—Is the Holy Ghost operative in my life? Do I pray often, both alone and with my family? Do my prayers show gratitude? sincerity? humility?
—Am I hard-working, industrious, and enthusiastic?
—What specific steps can I take to improve my character?
—If I were another person, would I enjoy being around myself? Am I cheerful, patient, radiant, kind?
—Would I give my life for the Savior and his church? Very well—am I so giving my life?
Honest answers to such questions cannot help but reveal one’s inner self. These questions, a personal list, or one of many published lists could be used.
A weekly hour of self-questioning should begin and end with secret prayer. Criticism is desirable, but it must be only self-criticism, and even that is best when tempered by reasonable patience. Perfection is a long, hard haul, not an overnight miracle.
3. The Franklin method. “It was about this time that I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” So writes Benjamin Franklin, one of the United States’ founding fathers and first ambassadors, as he introduces the reader of his Autobiography to a plan for self-examination and improvement.
Franklin began by choosing what he felt were the twelve primary virtues, to which he later added humility. He proceeded to divide “the ivory leaves of a memorandum book” into thirteen rows and several columns. The columns were for the days of the week, the rows for each of the chosen virtues.
Before retiring each night, Franklin would search himself and his day with respect to each of the virtues, and “mark by a little black spot every fault I found upon examination to have been committed respecting that virtue upon that day.” In this manner he became aware of his weaknesses, and a clear view of desirable improvement was possible.
Eat not to dullness.
A plan for inward searching similar to Benjamin Franklin’s is an effective help to the Latter-day Saint striving for repentance and the other principles of the gospel. Becoming aware of needs is a large part of the battle.
It is interesting that Franklin began the plan only after concluding that his abstract resolutions and “mere speculative conviction” that he ought to do right were accomplishing little. Only a written plan could succeed. His evaluation of the method after years of using it is revealing:
“I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined, but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.”
Are we able to say the same of our own faults?
4. Faith in Jesus Christ. No amount of inward searching will avail an individual much without an active faith in the living Savior. Countless men without the hopeful perspective of Christ’s plan have sought self-knowledge and improvement; often they have only concluded in frustration that perfection is unattainable. In one sense they were right. Man simply cannot perfect himself, by himself.
The surest way to self-knowledge is found in Christ’s words to Moroni: “… if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness.” (Ether 12:27.) The Savior also teaches us the way to overcome the faults we discover by inward searching: “… my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.” (Ether 12:27. Italics added.)
It is from the example, life, and living inspiration of the Man of Galilee that men learn the path to perfection. Then, through faith, the path is walked. A faith of “mere speculative conviction” is not enough, however. True faith manifests itself in action.
“How shall we learn to know ourselves?” asked the German writer Goethe. “By reflection? Never; but only through action. Strive to do thy duty; then shalt thou know what is in thee.” It is not only in quiet hours of meditation that we discover ourselves, but also in hours of wearying toil, in service without reward, in smiles that hurt, in hungering, thirsting, striving, and seeking.
He who is willing to so strive embarks on a journey not unlike the odysseys of old. He will find shortcomings within himself he had never supposed were there. He will climb mountains not even visible from the low path of complacency and procrastination.
If the goal is pursued faithfully, he will find treasure at the journey’s end. For every person has treasure from a preexistent past buried within his soul—divine jewels waiting only to be polished to perfection by the Master.