Self-Consciousness vs. Self-Awareness

Hopefully you’ve been reading my project blog posts, which concern themselves with what we’ve learned about Kijungumoto and chronicle notable weekly activities. Since right now our task is to absorb everything we can about Kijungumoto– how, what, who, where, why, how many– the ambling and open scheduling that envelops Tanzania has actually greatly facilitated our work. People will call to us from the road- "Karibu!" ("Welcome!") or "Karibuni!" ("Welcome, all!) and motion into their houses, whether those houses are mud huts or sprawling concrete complexes. Just by being aware of our surroundings and being willing to step back from our previous assumptions, judgements, and even plans, we’ve gained so much information as a team. There’s so much to do and learn and share here, if you only pay attention.

However, I have to confess that I’ve had a very hard time paying attention and thus reaping the benefits activity lends to perception. The first three weeks, I found participation in all aspects of life here extremely hard. In our house, I didn’t know how to work the kerosene stove, so I sat back and hoped somebody else did. In actuality, no one in our team had prior knowledge of how to work the stove, and Kate and Lizzy figured it out by trial and error. Outside our house, I was afraid to talk to people or have them talk to me, because I didn’t want to speak in ungrammatical Swahili or reveal that I hadn’t understood what they were saying (even if five minutes later, I’d actually have managed to process most of what they said.) Of course, because I avoided speaking or initating contact and Kate and Lizzy braved ahead with the same amount of Swahili, I ended up barely talking, and thus not really comprehending what was going on around me, for those first three weeks.

Worse, my fear of saying something inadequate or erroneous, or of revealing my ignorance of something being discussed in a professional setting, carried over into English as well. I got tongue-tied in Swahili, and then because I was flustered, I’d get tongue-tied in the only language I thought I knew how to speak, and spend the next five minutes being embarrassed instead of paying attention. My self-defeating attitude collapsed the world to a narrow tunnel full of echoes. I could only focus on myself and how I was inadequately prepared for/participating in/evaluating the experience at hand, so I couldn’t see what I was doing right, or could do right, or even actually observe what was going on. To paraphrase Josh’s words, "You’re self-conscious when you need to be self-aware."

It’s telling that I needed one of my closest friends to make clear to me what was written all over my first three weeks. Self-consciousness is easy; self-awareness is hard. I’m prone to self-consciousness, perhaps because I’m a planner by nature and inclination, and I’m coming to understand that self-awareness comes from experience, which requires you to put plans into action, or even to do something without knowing what precisely it will require. I found myself remembering that Socrates was a soldier before he was the canny gadfly St. John’s students know and love; and he gained his reputation for wisdom by going out and questioning everyone he ran across. He ‘knew himself’ by actively doing, rather than by passively planning. Though all his questions to interlocutors are quite directed, the direction comes from the fact that Socrates is actively participating in the conversation, and very aware of what the other person is saying (or not saying.)

So what I had (and have) to do is stop being self-conscious: stop building up situations or plans so that they become terrifying and unmanageable. To quote another Greek: "Just do it." I need to have a safe space to practice Swahili in, so I need to find someone who knows both English and Swahili, and who I feel I can speak casually with, since it’s being inadequate in a professional setting that worries me. With those sessions to build my confidence, I’ll be able to handle the idea of using what Swahili I have to navigate professional settings/everyday interactions (which are often the same thing here.)

And honestly, even voicing the idea to people makes me less nervous- telling Hassani and Halima "Ninataka kujisema kiswahili, kwa sababu nitajifunza" or some equivalent ("I want to speak Swahili, because I want to learn.") is an opener to saying something else, and lets them know that I do want to be part of the conversation after all, that I do want to share my life with them and have them speak to me, even if the communication won’t be perfect. It always been very important for me to start well, so that things move smoothly towards my goal- but experience is teaching me that the process of getting things right is often a lot more messy than I want it to be, and sometimes to start well you just have to go ahead and start, and learn as you go.

I think that’s the road to self-awareness: concentrating on what’s there (both inside and outside yourself), instead of what isn’t there. By doing so, you’re using what you know as a springboard to launch yourself into what you don’t know yet. Productivity comes from self-awareness, and self-awareness comes from a habit of active observation, which in some sense means conducting a dialogue with the world.

I’ve started making my first stabs at actually learning Swahili, and so I’ll conclude with my first stabs at becoming more self-aware in general. Self-awareness is one of the core values of 2Seeds- one of the things deemed necessary to start and develop a good project- and it’s defined in the Statement of Values as "seeking at all points to better understand our skills, our capabilities, and our frailties." So: I’m a creative planner who’s spent a lot of time thinking about the interplay between structure and content. I run on enthusiasm, and I have the capacity to infuse other people with that enthusiasm. I tend to take criticism too personally and I have a tendency to procrastinate. I’m also finally starting to feel at home in Kijungumoto, and I promise not to wait over a month to tell you all about it!