In one of my recent classes I mentioned the term “self-awareness” and discovered that most of my students did not know what it meant. We interestingly live in a culture of self-absorption—of selfies and self-centered Facebook posts—but lack a healthy awareness of self.
Many of us grew up in an environment where talking or thinking about one’s self was bad. We just didn’t do that. Sitting and reflecting on our interior life might have been considered self-absorption. Yet the spiritual life calls us to do precisely that! St. Ignatius Loyola initially lived a self-absorbed life. He cared about his status and image, just like many of our contemporaries do, except Ignatius didn’t have Instagram. It took the tremendous grace of God and Ignatius’s willingness of heart to transform his self-absorption into an eye-opening self-awareness.
What the Examen calls us to is a habitual examination of our actions and habits to see what is and isn’t leading us to God. Prayerful reflection can reveal the need for rest or a need to engage ourselves more in our community or a need to throw off a bad habit. Forgetting about our own needs can be a disservice to others. Lack of self-knowledge can mean lashing out at others, forgetting the needs of our neighbor, or maintaining unhealthy habits.
Self-awareness is the only way we can open our eyes wide enough to see the needs of our neighbor. How are we to do the healing work of caring for others if we have not first understood our own gifts and needs? While cliché, the metaphor of putting on our own oxygen mask before helping others makes sense. But to engage in this interior work we must be humble, getting past the tendency to be self-absorbed.
Self-absorption is always inwardly focused. Self-awareness, on the other hand, is ultimately for the service of outward ministry. It is the oxygen of inner spiritual maturity, helping us better to serve and share God’s love with others.