When we see men of a contrary character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves. – Confucius
What does that mean?
This is an interesting quote about trying to master yourself by interaction with other people. It is the second half of a longer quote, often stated as:
“When we see men of worth, we should think of equaling them; when we see men of a contrary character, we should turn inwards and examine ourselves.”
An alternate translation makes this point a little more clear: “When you see a good person, think of becoming like her/him. When you see someone not so good, reflect on your own weak points.”
So, the longer version of the quote urges us to consider how to become better any time we find someone who is better than we are. This would likely include those doing better financially, spiritually, emotionally, or having a better set of physical skills.
The second half of the longer quote urges us to turn inward when we find someone who is not doing as well as we are. This would include the same categories, but a different method. It also specifically mentions introspection, or self examination as the way to consider our weaknesses.
Why is self-examination important?
To me, this is the most important thing we do in our lives. Some might argue that getting marriage is more important, or that raising a family is more important. However, it is my opinion that without introspection, you don’t really know who you are.
Consider that for a moment. How do you go into any relationship, much less marriage, without knowing who you are? And how would you raise children, or do much of anything else in life, without knowing who you are? How likely are you to take a less-than-great decision if you don’t know who you are?
By asking questions of yourself, by digging into who you are, and why you belive, feel, or think the way you do, you gain power over yourself. You can determine what you wish to keep, and what you want to discard. You get to design your life, not just stumble through it.
Where can I apply this in my life?
The easy answer is everywhere. But that’s not very helpful, I know. But consider the parts of your life where things don’t feel right. Where there seems to be a difficulty of some sort, but you can’t quite put your finger on the cause. That might be something to look into, right?
What about areas in your life where you just aren’t sure you still believe or feel the way you used to about something? Would that be a good place to examine? Who knows, you may find you have some beliefs which are in conflict, and that’s what is causing your uncertainty.
Imagine how confused you could become if you weren’t sure which of the beliefs you should follow when two were in conflict? Well, if you didn’t know what they were, you couldn’t decide, could you? But knowing what those beliefs are, you can better make a decision, right?
Take a moment and pick one particular aspect of your life for self-examination. I would start by trying to write down everything about the issue which causes concern, confusion, or difficulty. Next, pick the top three items on that list, by either your level of concern, or the amount of difficulty that item is giving you.
Now ask yourself why you believe that specific thing? Why it is important to you? When you first start believing it? How well does it serve you at this time? Just keep digging deeper and deeper. It may end up being a growth from a childhood fear which is no longer frightening. But the baggage you still carry is.
The idea is to keep digging, asking more questions as you go. Try to find out why, and not be satisfied with easy answers. That means, by definition, this will be a hard thing to do. Even more so when you realize that if you aren’t truthful with yourself, you’re not going to get very far, right?
Who, what, where, why, when, and how are the “5 W’s and an H” of digging deeper on any subject. If you get stuck with one line of questioning, change the inquisitor. If “what” isn’t getting you anywhere, ask yourself when something changed. Ask yourself where you were when it changed.
There is always something new to learn about ourselves. If an open-field situation, like “Examine your life,” gives you pause, consider the quote, and pick one specific thing, based on a flaw you saw in someone else. Or you could strive to learn more about any of your specific weaknesses, flaws, or other defects, right?
Ask yourself how you avoided it, or are trying to do so. Ask when you last did something like that. Ask why you don’t like doing such things. Ask how you can make sure you don’t do such a thing.
Whatever the subject, the examination of the self is always in order. There is much we can learn from ourselves, and many contradictions which need to be sorted out. All you have to do is start asking.