A few months before my father died, he was working in another town and we went to visit him. I was outside with several other girls and boys having a carefree time diving, racing, and showing off in the motel pool when my parents called me inside. They had been watching and talking about me, and now they had something to say. Receiving personal attention from either of my parents was rare enough, but to be called into their joint presence was like being summoned to an unexpected audience with the Queen and King. I knew the matter must be of utmost importance, and I listened intently.
I was a natural leader with gifts and talents many children lacked, my father said. I should be careful, he warned, about not showing off, being bossy, or dominating situations. A little girl out there by the pool was having trouble keeping up with the rest of us. She seemed to feel insecure, perhaps inferior. I should notice her, think about her feelings, try not to call attention to myself by outshining the others, try to include her and make her feel better about herself.
This was a crucial moment in my development. My eyes were instantly opened to an entirely new way of looking at myself and others. Suddenly I knew people were watching me, perhaps even feeling bad about themselves because of me. I should think about their feelings and ignore my own. I should hide my own strengths so as not to intimidate them. I was strong enough to make these kinds of sacrifices for others. Believing I had received a valuable piece of wisdom, I left the motel room a very different little girl from the one who had innocently pranced in. For a moment I deliberated carefully, then casually walked up to the little girl in the faded brown bathing suit and tentatively lied, “I like your bathing suit.”
She grinned widely and said something like, “Really? This old thing?” Then she bounced off happily to the diving board while I sat quietly in the nearest chair to avoid notice. I was stunned by my new awareness and uncomfortable about what I had just done. I had said something that wasn’t true, but apparently with very good effect. The things I said and did could make a difference to others! I could help people or I could harm them. What if in my ignorance I had spent the whole day out here playing with these children, innocently enjoying the competition, being such a good swimmer and diver that I made some of them feel terrible about themselves?
My God! The mistakes I could have made. As I sat musing, my self-consciousness inflated to encompass the universe. Suddenly the world was filled with eyes, and I knew that all of them, including God’s eyes, were watching me. I felt as if I were being dissected, cell by cell, beneath a critical, cosmic microscope.
Everyone grows self-conscious during the pre-teen years, and like all psychological potential, self-consciousness can be positive or negative. I saw myself through the eyes of others for the first time on this day and that was a good thing; seeing the consequences of our behavior is crucial to developing a social conscience. However, after my father died my self-consciousness morphed into self-torment. Yet, that too was redeemable. Painful as it was, my adolescent turmoil uniquely predisposed me for my future passion for self-knowledge, and this has brought not only great relief, but great joy. Yes, evolving into a more conscious being hurts, but it is well worth the suffering.