Know thyself, the Greeks said. Easy peasy, prima facie. In reality, it is one of the most difficult things you will ever do. Because being completely true to oneself is one of the most insidious challenges there is. This is a topic with which author and philosopher Ilaria Gaspari is all too familiar, and also the subject of her book “Vita segreta delle emozioni” (The Secret Life of Our Emotions) (published by Einaudi), a sort of inner alphabet of everything familiar to each and every one of us. It spans the spectrum from nostalgia to anger, regret to compassion, dislike, anxiety and envy to wonder, and even gratitude: the basic emotions that we all know from different experiences in our lives.
A book urging us all not to ignore emotions, because they do not make us weak (or even better, really). Instead, they reveal great truths about ourselves. And, precisely because of this, they can help guide our choices. They can even help us come to terms with our wrong choices. A “comforting” book, indeed, just as “telling children a story to calm them down” can be, by putting everything in a larger context.
With a single mistake, Ilaria Gaspari had a very powerful experience. Quite literally, you could say that one mistake changed her life. “I relate it quite hard in the book, because it’s one of the things that makes me feel very stupid, yet doing it was also very liberating”, she says. The story, in a nutshell: a tight deadline is looming for a competitive selection for researchers in France. Ilaria had been studying and working on this for years, convinced that this was her path. In the meantime, however, she writes her first novel, discovering the pleasure she derives from writing fiction rather than academic texts. Perhaps this is the moment when a certain degree of rejection sets in. However, she pays it no heed at all. Rationally, there are no arguments against a university career. And so her mind decides to look for another way: finding it in forgetfulness. “I misread the deadline of this competition, so on the day of the deadline, I had not handed in my dossier, because I was convinced that I still had another whole month”, relates Gaspari.
“We are faced with the moral duty to know and recognise ourselves as we are”.
At that point, it was easy to feel that I had failed. “It was very heavy, I felt very bad about it, but only with time did I realise that this mistake was the way to allow myself to make a choice about something that I thought I had no choice about, because of that very common philosophy that opportunities should not be thrown away. Sometimes, however, I think we want to throw away opportunities. I did not allow myself to be free at that moment, so I had to rely on forgetfulness. Looking back, I can say that I am very happy that this was the case. I just couldn’t admit it at the time because it would have been very unpopular”, she explains.
Knowing oneself and trusting one’s own feelings, Ilaria learned, is crucial. “Sometimes we think we can circumvent this route, but in reality we cannot. We are faced with the moral duty to know and recognise ourselves as we are“, she emphasises. Not that it is an easy process, of course. This is not something that matches only the reflection we see in the mirror, nor what we want for ourselves, nor the idea we think others have of us. “It is a path that forces us to come to terms with two things: firstly, our limitations, because sometimes we fixate on a certain thing, thinking that it is what we were born for, when perhaps it’s really not at all. Sometimes we need to sacrifice that image of ourselves that we hold so close and perhaps depend on, including a certain type of approval that others give us when we meet expectations”, explains the philosopher.
The second element is our relationships with mistakes: “Forgiving ourselves for mistakes, understanding what they mean, taking them in a Spinozian way as a moment in which we lacked knowledge of something and in which we had to be content with the data we had, is something that is part of a journey, which is tiring, but which really allows us to get to know ourselves and to develop a relationship with ourselves that is less judgemental and more creative in our way of understanding our relationship with life”.
“Having a good daemon means that the voice that warns you when you betray yourself has no objection”
The effort of getting to know oneself also means having to come to terms with the most uncomfortable aspects of oneself. “You have to realise that there are no photogenic emotions, they are not two-dimensional, they do not have a single direction, they are not reassuring”, she elaborates.
From this point of view, however, literature and philosophy can be of great help in terms of abstraction and learning. “In my opinion, the great richness of literature in allowing you to live other lives, enriching the perspective in which you place yourself and widening the range of your knowledge, is something irreplaceable. When I think of the things I would not have understood, if I had not read novels and characters that were true and real…”, Gaspari drifts off. Philosophy, meanwhile, also “leads you to see things that concern you from a broader, wider perspective, thereby enabling and encouraging you to get out of the narrower perspective, the more coercive and narrower aspect of your experience of being human”.
These are all elements that, in a broader perspective, serve to cultivate what for the ancients was synonymous with happiness: a good daemon. “Having a good daemon means that the voice that warns you when you betray yourself has no objection, it is satisfied with what you are doing. There is an exploratory aspect, related to self-discovery, but also the aspect of making sure that the life you build for yourself is something that doesn’t counteract this inner voice. In this regard, it is a construction that progresses also through trial and error”, explains Gaspari.
They are all part of the journey. “I feel it is very important, precisely to put ourselves in a position of having to make choices, not to blame ourselves or stifle what we feel, and to make peace with the fact that what we feel does not improve us, at least not directly“, concludes Gaspari. “It improves us in the sense that it improves our cognitive possibilities, and this is a revolutionary thing to bear in mind, but, by the same token, it does not make us morally better or closer to any ideal. Therefore, accepting that everything we feel is imperfect like us, has limits, ambiguities, points where we fail to fully comprehend, is just another way of learning to live as serenely as possible with the world around us”.