Season on Origins – Personal Origins

The Season on Origins
During these six weeks, we remind ourselves who we are by examining the contexts in which we are – our cosmic, biological, historical, social, communal, and individual contexts. We look at ourselves through different lenses and at different scales. We see the world we inhabit as the natural scientist sees it, as the social scientist sees it, and as we as individuals see it. We find our place everywhere, from the vastness of the universe to our own living rooms.

Week 6 – Personal Origins
This week we look at ourselves in isolation from the larger forces which influence our lives. We seek to understand our current selves better and to see how the decisions we have made throughout our lives have shaped those selves. We think of ourselves as agents who have power over our own lives and seek to understand that power. Our personal origins encompass everything about how we relate to ourselves, including questions of authenticity, personal responsibility, and decision-making. They encompass the great and ongoing task of self-discovery, including our personal history, personality, values, beliefs, strengths, weaknesses, and more.

“Know Thyself” – Maxim inscribed on the Temple to Apollo at Delphi

We are a mystery, even to ourselves (sometimes, especially to ourselves). The ancient maxim which exhorts us to know ourselves does not ask something easy. We are often too close to our situations, or too proud (or conversely too self-effacing), or simply too distracted by external stimuli to accurately assess our own lives. But the benefits can be tremendous. We must examine the forces within ourselves with determine our behavior, the conflicting desires and beliefs which shape our deliberative landscape. We are much better able to build the lives we want when we understand our starting point. Join us as this year we focus our observance on getting to know ourselves a little better, on the value of being alone, and on examining how our past decisions have brought us to where we are now in life.

● Take a personality or morality test. In taking any of these tests, including the professional ones, it is important to approach them with the right mindset. Use these tests as tools to help you think about yourself, not as iron-clad descriptions of who you really are. These tests are approximate at best, and you are mutable over time. If you discover that you might have a tendency you aren’t proud of, you can take steps to address that. But the first step is finding out, and these tests are a good start to that investigation.

There are a lot of personality tests, all coming from different theoretical backgrounds and using different methods. Some worth looking into are the Revised NEO Personality Inventory (NEO PI-R), the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), and the Sixteen Personality Factor Questionnaire (16PF). Unfortunately, all of the big, high-quality tests cost money (and often require going to visit a psychologist). There are a number of derivative tests to be found online. This one is based on the NEO PI-R and vouched for by a Penn State University professor.

There are a number of good, free tests of your moral beliefs at, a collaboration between a number of prominent psychologists.

● Play “Staying Alive: the personal identity game.” It is a quick, fun look at the philosophy of personal identity.

● We just spent a week being with other people, now spend some time being alone. Take yourself on a date, go somewhere that meant something special to you, or simply go for a walk by yourself. However you do it, make sure to leave time for quiet reflection. While too much time up there can be dangerous, spend some time this week in your own head.

● Remember your personal history – watch old family videos, read old journals, archived emails, or instant message conversations, go through old essays you’ve written for school. Try to write out a timeline for yourself and your development.

● Think specifically about your past decisions and how they have shaped your life. What are the choices you have made which have made you the person you are today? What are the good ones, the bad ones, the arbitrary and unexpectedly momentous ones?

Remember, though, that not all decisions are as momentous as we take them to be at first or when we look back at them afterwards. Consider the irony in perhaps the most famous poem about the choices we make in life, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.”

● As you think about who you are, allow the others in your life to be who they are. Is there someone you are trying to change, someone you’re trying to get to behave more like you do? Consider that their way of life may simply be different from yours and that might be perfectly fine. Don’t let this distract you from real problems that need to be worked out, but take time this week to consider that possibility. Give a frustrating person in your life the benefit of the doubt.

Have other suggestions for how to observe this week? Comment below with your ideas!

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