‘Hey baby I hear the blues, they’re calling. Tossed salads and scrambled eggs’…
- ‘Frasier’ Theme Song
It has been observed that the long and winding road to happily ever after is littered with cozy Italian restaurants, lucky ties and little black dresses, and milestones of increasingly complex interrogations disguised as ‘getting to know one another.’
Convention dictates a mild start:
White wine or red?
Prosecco please. Otherwise red.
Appetizers or dessert?
Dessert. Always dessert.
A safe transition into the personal but unobtrusive is then made possible through benign inquiries into such formalities as place of birth, occupation, and career goals.
From there, the questions snowball: Favorite movies, favorite shows. Favorite books, favorite bands. Views on abortion, global warming, foreign policy, the latest Woody Allen. Data is analyzed, patterns are drawn, judgments are passed, and somewhere down that road, we claim to know a person.
Drawing on my own experience, of all the questions I have had to answer along the spectrum from ‘is this seat taken’ to ‘will you marry me,’ one stands out as my favorite: Eggs.
That’s right. ‘How do you like your eggs?’
The most understated relational point of no return.
Eggs are breakfast. Eggs are coffee. Eggs are a lazy Sunday morning with nothing to do, nowhere to be, and nothing to hide behind. There may be nothing like the thrill of a first date, but there is no question more beautiful or intimate than ‘how do you like your eggs.’ It carries no ulterior motive; breakfast preferences leave no room for interpretation, no matter what your horoscope says. Nor does it require responsorial forethought; to be right, the answer need only be true.
Easier said than done, of course, for giving an honest answer actually requires knowing it.
Legend has it that once upon a time, the seven sages of ancient Greece gathered in the Temple of Apollo at Delphi to lay the foundation for western culture. These philosophers, statesmen, and lawmakers developed one hundred and forty-seven aphorisms , known as the Delphic maxims. Of these, they inscribed just one at the entry of the temple’s sacred oracle: ‘Know thyself.’
These two words traveled from antiquity to modern times, spreading through races and cultures, religious and scientific discourse. They showed up in philosophy, art, literature, policy, even how-to manuals on the art of war. ‘The essence of knowledge is self-knowledge,’ said Plato. His pupil, Aristotle, confirmed: ‘Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.’ Far away and centuries later, Rumi wondered: ‘Who am I in the midst of all this thought traffic?’ and even Lewis Carroll’s Alice, in her adventures in Wonderland, asked: ‘Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.’
‘Know thyself.’ The most popular, most translated, most interpreted, and most difficult maxim of all. There is a reason that was the one the sages carved onto the temple forecourt.
Knowing yourself means knowing your worth. True, there are 7.2 billion souls in the world, of which you are but one. There are also over one hundred species and thousands of cultivars of roses in the world, ‘but my rose, all on her own, is more important than all of [them] together, since she's the one I've watered.’ – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Knowing yourself means knowing your limitations, knowing your flaws. ‘If most of us remain ignorant of ourselves, it is because self-knowledge is painful and we prefer the pleasures of illusion.’ - Aldous Huxley Perhaps that is why so many ships, and men, rot away in harbors; that is not what they are made for. With the recognition of limitations comes the audacity, and the purpose, to challenge them.
But knowing yourself is not to be confused with finding yourself. Yourself is not a place, and it is not a specific time. A summer trekking through India or riding the night trains across Europe is a wonderful adventure indeed, but any self-realization it brings is circumstantial to its novelty. And time has a nasty habit of wearing in and wearing out experiences. ‘One must find the source within one's own Self, one must possess it. Everything else [is] seeking - a detour, an error.’ - Hermann Hesse
Finally, knowing yourself means knowing what you want. In that domain, as Kelsey Grammar sang, we are all ‘tossed salads and scrambled eggs…’
In one of the many sappy romantic comedies that defined the nineties I grew up in, Julia Roberts plays a young woman notorious for repeatedly getting engaged then running out on the groom on her wedding day. The movie features many breakfast scenes, in each of which she orders her eggs differently: poached, sunny-side up, scrambled… always the way her companion was having them. The truth was she did not know how she liked them. It was not that no one had asked her, but that she had never had the courage to find out.
‘We are shaped and fashioned by what we love,’ said Wolfgang von Goethe. Do we not then owe it to ourselves to find out what that is? We are entitled to know what defines us, and what makes us happy. And we are entitled to change our minds. We can lead as many lives as we want, so long as we remain true to ourselves in every one.
‘Know Thyself’ was written over the portal of the antique world. Over the portal of the new world, ‘Be Thyself’ shall be written.
– Oscar Wilde
For the record, I like my eggs scrambled.