C.S. Lewis and Self-Awareness

Who are you? If you were to fully answer that question, it would require serious introspection. However, if you were to answer it completely, it would also require an honesty that is extremely rare.

That’s because anyone who reveals everything about themself, comes to a point where the qualities and actions are no longer flattering. They ultimately arrive at the place where the exposé becomes a confession.

The truth is that no one actually knows everything about themself. But some of the things we are aware of . . . some of the secrets we desire to hide, even from ourselves . . . are seldom shared. That is one great value of the “confessional.” There, one can unburden themselves and face their demons, so to speak, in a setting where they know their confidence won’t be violated.

As a Protestant pastor, who has never used a physical confessional stall or screen, I note that I have nevertheless heard thousands of confessions. They are, as one would expect, a common element of counseling as people seek to experience healing and restoration. As a Lutheran, I belong to a tradition that guarantees the privacy of these confessions, or what is considered “privileged communication.” Moreover, as a military chaplain, I was grateful to serve a nation that enshrines the same promise in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

As Lewis wrote, “if there is a particular sin on your conscience, repent and confess it” (Letters to an American Lady). Once that is done, the pastor (or any “confessor”) can assist the individual with working to make as right as possible in the future what was damaged or destroyed by their choices in the past.

From the Psychological Vantage Point

If you have never encountered it before, I commend to you the model called the Johari Window. I have written about it in the past in the context of honesty and dishonesty.

The model illustrates just how complex our personalities are. The arrows on the model below reveal how we can expand the “open” part of ourselves. Naturally, there are some “hidden” aspects that should only be disclosed in certain contexts.

When it comes to the darkness in our lives, that which we strive to keep veiled, psychologists describe it in a variety of ways. One chaplain with whom I worked was particularly enamored with the work of Carl Jung. He loved to toss around the word “shadow,” and suggest there was some dark psychological significance to even the most offhand comment or expression. In essence, the shadow is the part of our personality we don’t want to admit to having. In terms of the Johari Window, you might think of it as the sinister stuff in the Hidden quadrant.*

C.S. Lewis wrote about Jung in an essay entitled “Psycho-Analysis and Literary Criticism.” Lewis disparages the Freudian theory, saying “poetry is not a substitute for sexual satisfaction, nor sexual satisfaction for poetry.” Jung, he argues, presents “a much more civil and humane interpretation of myth and imagery.” Of course, Lewis is discussing these psychoanalysts from the perspective of a literary critic, not a psychologist. In that regard, we can appreciate his assessment of one of Jung’s major works.

Thanks to my training I can suspend my judgement about the scientific value of Jung’s essay on “Mind and the Earth:” but I perceive at once that even if it turns out to be bad science it is excellent poetry.

From the Christian Point of View

I have already described how confession can serve as a means of expanding our self-awareness in a constructive and healing way. That’s why confession and absolution are a formal part of many worship service, going back to the earliest times. If we want to read the finest primer on confession, we need look no further than the book of Psalms.

As King David, in recognition of this great sins, prays in the fifty-first psalm:

Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
    and cleanse me from my sin!

One of the earliest Christian classics (outside the Bible itself) was aptly entitled Confessions. It was written by Augustine, the bishop of a North African city called Hippo. His description of our self-awareness is so deep and profound, it will likely require more than a single reading.

No one knows what he himself is made of, except his own spirit within him, yet there is still some part of him which remains hidden even from his own spirit; but you, Lord, know everything about a human being because you have made him . . .

Let me, then, confess what I know about myself, and confess too what I do not know, because what I know of myself I know only because you shed light on me, and what I do not know I shall remain ignorant about until my darkness becomes like bright noon before your face. (Augustine, The Confessions, translation by Maria Boulding)

One of C.S. Lewis’ many correspondents was a man who was acutely troubled by his own self-awareness, and in particular, the consciousness of his own selfishness and egotism. Lewis offered some comforting and sound spiritual direction to the man. Since I believe the letter has a message for us all, I choose to close with it.

You are of course perfectly right in defining your problem (which is also mine and everyone’s) as “excessive selfness.” But perhaps you don’t fully realise how far you have got by so defining it. All have this disease: fortunate are the minority who know they have it.

To know that one is dreaming is to be already nearly awake, even if, for the present, one can’t wake up fully. And you have actually got further than that. You have got beyond the illusion (very common) that to recognise a chasm is the same thing as building a bridge over it.

Your danger now is that of being hypnotized by the mere sight of the chasm, of constantly looking at this excessive selfness. The important thing now is to go steadily on acting, so far as you can—and you certainly can to some extent, however small—as if it wasn’t there. You can, and I expect you daily do—behave with some degree of unselfishness. You can and do make some attempt at prayer.

The continual voice which tells you that your best actions are secretly filled with subtle self-regard, and your best prayers still wholly egocentric—must for the most part be simply disregarded—as one disregards the impulse to keep on looking under the bandage to see whether the cut is healing. If you are always fidgeting with the bandage, it never will

A text you should keep much in mind is I John iii, 20: “If our heart condemns us God is greater than our heart.” I sometimes pray “Lord give me no more and no less self-knowledge than I can at this moment make a good use of.” Remember He is the artist and you are only the picture. You can’t see it. So quietly submit to be painted—i.e. keep on fulfilling all the obvious duties of your station (you really know quite well enough what they are!), asking forgiveness for each failure and then leaving it alone. You are in the right way. Walk—don’t keep on looking at it.

* In contrast to the insignificant or embarrassing things we are aware of that we may prefer to keep to ourselves. For example, although I sing decently, I am an exceptionally poor instrumentalist. This despite the fact I married a talented and patient music teacher. It’s not my lack of talent which motivates my secrecy, it is the sad fact that I am a total sluggard when it comes to practicing. And this reveals a major flaw in my personality—if something is not inherently fun or doesn’t come easily to me, I have a terribly difficult time applying myself to the task. (And this shortcoming has very real consequences, both in terms of professional success and interpersonal relationships.)

⁑ Several years ago, a member of our Mere Inkling described in her blog how everyone experiences seasons of restlessness.

In his Confessions, Augustine wrote, “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.” Yet even those who have found Christ feel restless at certain times, and these times lead us to a salutary discovery.

Augustine’s Confessions is a Christian classic. You can download a free copy here.

23 thoughts on “C.S. Lewis and Self-Awareness

  1. Another excellent essay, Rob. You’ve combined two of my favorites, out of all the intellects that have guided me, through their writings, since I was a very young man. Lewis and Jung have the kind of minds that mine has always aspired to be–eclectic, intensely curious about how different streams of thoughts and tools for exploring them meld together into a more complete inner picture of everything. I love to look at the questions that most intrigue me from the points of view of philosophy, science, theology, psychology, and history. Another intellectual who impresses me in the same way for the same reasons has a mixed reputation among his peers. Immanuel Velikovsky was extremely well educated and brilliant in science, theology, philosophy, mythology, etc. His theories about chaos in our solar system thousands of years ago were met with great skepticism from his peers. I’ve read all of his books and find them fascinating.

    Self-awareness combined with God-awareness, or perhaps as a route to God-awareness is the best route to a meaningful life. Something that has intrigued me, and I’ve written about it often, is that every cell in our bodies (including our seat of consciousness–the brain or as some consider, the heart), every single cell, is replaced over the course of each 7 year period of our lives. How is it that we retain self-awareness, when not one cell that was part of us 7 years ago is still part of us. It’s like a hammer that was handed down from Great, Great Grandfather, whose handle has been replaced three times and whose head has been replaced twice, yet is still thought of as Great, Great Grandfather’s hammer. The big difference, of course, is that the hammer never had a sense of self-identity, yet we do. I remember being a two year old, playing on the porch of our house with our little dog, Bimbo. She died before I was three, but I remember her. How can I? The cells of my brain have been replaced many, many times since I was two.

    Modern students of neuropsychology, through their experiments, have come to believe that every time we process a memory, we change it a bit. That makes me think of the quantum physicists who say that we determine reality by our observations of phenomena. They say they’ve proved this in the famous double slit experiments as well as others. What does this say about our self-awareness, our awareness of outer reality, and our God-awareness?

    It makes me sad that as I get older I can feel my brain cells operating at a slower frequency, because my questions about everything grow, daily, by multiples. I really enjoy your writing, because you do it very well, and your intellect is an instrument that brings pleasure to my mind as a finely tuned piano does to my ears.

    1. Flattering final paragraph aside, I must respond: what deep thoughts! I’ve never read anything by Velikovsky, but you have me curious.

      My avoidance is not due to disagreement (never having weighed his arguments), but my orientation toward the practical vis-à-vis theoretical or philosophical. That, and an ingrained suspicion of psychiatry (as contrasted with psychology).

      I share your sentiment about slowing synapses and dimming eyes. My curiosity, as well, is never sated. I relish learning new things. And because of that, perhaps, I may take a look at this third mentor of yours.

  2. “You have got beyond the illusion (very common) that to recognise a chasm is the same thing as building a bridge over it.” I like this quote, yet also feel confused by it because of the explanations around it. Lewis seems to praise being able to recognize the chasm but then this quote makes it sound like that’s not enough…

    1. Recognizing the chasm is indeed a good thing, but it’s only, as Lewis says, the first step. And awareness of our shortcomings can be crippling… especially when we don’t think there is any possibility of them being resolved. (That’s why we shouldn’t become “hypnotized” by their existence.

      The person Lewis was counseling was apparently disabled by his awareness of how much he focused on himself to the exclusion of God and others.

      There is no sin from which the Lord cannot free us. And, recognizing the thing as sin (i.e. wrong) is the beginning of our yielding those areas to his gracious healing.

  3. Great post — I’m glad Lewis liked Jung as I’m an admirer of both. Nice to see such a clear explanation of the Johari Window. Seems Augustine of Hippo could’ve had the diagram in front of him as he wrote (though obviously not unless he had a time machine). I love Lewis’s letter: excellent advice.

    1. The first time I encountered the Johari Window, I found it quite enlightening. It definitively expressed what I already intuitively “knew” to be true. The most interesting thing to me now (about this concept) is how the size of the quadrants vary for each individual, and how we can directly affect that alteration.

      1. There’s a similar four part structure with skills development and knowledge.

        For example, you know that you know some stuff about any given skill or knowledge domain. You also know that there’s a certain amount that you don’t know, but you don’t know how big that amount is. There’s also stuff that you don’t know that you know (in the case of skills, this is a desired state, as you want the skill to become unconscious muscle memory). And there’s stuff that you don’t know that you don’t know — this is particularly dangerous when people assume they know how something works but are missing a significant piece of background knowledge (this phenomenon is particularly noticeable with climate science deniers).

        But back to your original point: yes, Jung outlines the process of uncovering the unconscious material (it can happen in therapy and also through ritual).

      2. You’re right about the way in which the Johari concept can be applied to many fields.

        I’ve always tried to maintain a healthy awareness of how much I didn’t know about something. And–especially when I was supervising young chaplains who thought they knew EVERYTHING about a given subject–it was quite frustrating.

        Most weren’t like that, of course. But some, in their first assignments, acted as though they knew how things were done at every installation throughout the entire military. Large panes of not knowing what they don’t know…

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