They’re supposed to be laconic little piths of life-knowledge that you can digest and recall (and regurgitate) at a moment’s notice. The sayings Grandma needlepoints and frames and hangs above Granddad’s rocker – which homey image is how they’re supposed to make you feel. Complete. Earnest. Well-Intentioned. Striving To Be Whole.
But they’re not so straightforward as they seem. At least, not to the extent those who repeat them endlessly and unprovoked would have you think, as if they’re the answer to every last one of life’s little (and even major) problems.
The origins of these sayings are often obscured or ignored or simply unknown. Such is also the case with their contexts, especially in the aphorism compendiums that litter the feet of Christmas trees and other present-loci the world over, such as The Viking Book of Aphorisms that Auden edited, or the Native American Wisdom Collections you find in the gift shops of the natural wonders of the American West, or Zen-Thought-A-Day, or The Approachable Vedas.
Or the many varieties of Shakespeare Quotations.
Thus the Bard’s “To Thine Own Self Be True,” which has been much on my mind of late.
It’s become a self-empowering phrase, one that rat racers use to maintain their identities against the onslaught of gray-flannel-suitism, that yogis use to justify the (often ridiculous) cost of yoga studio membership, that people in recovery from everything from cancer to Catholicism to divorce to drugs use to reinforce that you are important, that you matter, that you are beautiful. That you are more than the disease and/or more than a victim and/or more than whatever it is that ails you. That whatever other people think of you, or require of you, or want you to be means nothing compared to what’s inside you and what you know in your heart of hearts you are and should be doing.
Trungpa would say it means not letting other people lay their trips on you. (But then he’d laugh and say, “That’s assuming there’s a self to lay trips on, which of course there isn’t. There aren’t even such things as trips! It’s all an illusion haha!” So, maybe he’s not so much help in this one.)
Not that any of these interpretations are really bad, obviously. If they work for people, if they’re a help, then good.
But back to “To Thine Own Self Be True.” If it appeared on Jeopardy, a lot people would askanswer, “Who is Socrates [or Some Other Ancient Greek]?” because the phrase is often emblazoned above a Greekesque profile or some esoteric/occultish symbol, like a triangle or an eye or some sun rays or an ankh.
Those that do know it comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet often forget (or ignore or don’t know) its context:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
What act it’s from (I.iii) is hardly important to most people. Neither is the fact that this is the last advice Polonius will give his son Laertes, who’s off on some business (ad)ventures and won’t return to Denmark before his windbag father gets himself killed for eavesdropping on a paranoid and borderline/depressive Hamlet.
Also not that important, when we’re talking about how the phrase functions in daily American life, is the rest of the bit. Old Polonius is basically saying that if you don’t lie to yourself, you’ll never have to lie to anyone else, and not only will you not have to, but you won’t even be capable of it.
Within this advice is the conceit that it’s better not to lie to people or take advantage of them, and that you or we or Laertes or at least Polonius is aiming for “better” or “right” behavior, just as Grandma’s needlepoints implore you to do. But all that pesky functioning-within-society bs is neatly done away with by the amputation of the aphorism’s surrounding lines, and we’re left with something intensely focused on — just as we’d have it since The Me Decade, when that culture of self-care I describe above really solidified — the self.
Trungpa and no-self Buddhism/Eastern-philosophy-in-general aside, the problem I’ve been having with this aphorism of late is: to which of mine myriad selves am I supposed to be being true? Especially considering what Thomas L. Masson, Life’s late-19thC literary editor and an ironic fan of aphorism himself, had to say about it:
Because I often find myself acting in a way I would not describe as imitation of the better angels of my nature. And not just acting that way, but enjoying it. Feeling as if I’m good at it, or would be, or once was and could be again. I live in a major metropolitan area, so traffic is a concern, and an instance of this, or provoker thereof. But I’m not just talking about violent fantasies (I mean, come on, we all know I hardly have the stones or the stomach for it) – I mean everything.
I’m also – like most people – in some ways juggling several different identities, wearing several different hats.
My anti-social Jack London hat fits really well and I feel really good when I’m wearing it, but should I really drop out and go find a sea-bound frigate upon which to weather some storms and develop some character? The other selves that have recently made some really awesome and exciting life decisions and are gaining traction in some pretty exciting areas would probably have something to say against that.
On a more positive note, some days I feel like I’m pretty good at my 9-5, and could, if I really applied myself to it, make something of myself in that world, long-term-career-wise. But sometimes I want to go back to teaching, and feel like I’m better at that, or “made for” that. Other days, I just want to get a manual labor job so I can move during the day and think at night instead of coming home already brain-tired and carpal-tunnel-sore (violins!). Or become a National Park Ranger. Or build furniture.
How much of life, after a certain point, is picking a person to be and sticking to it and developing one’s “self” within the parameters of the person you’ve picked to stick to being?
Is that being/becoming an adult? Or is that selling out? Selling short? Or just one way to live?
How do you know when you’ve reached that point of choosing?
How do you know how much of one part of yourself (a pinch?) and how much of the others (a dash? a dab? a handful?) to tip into the mix?
How do you keep it in mind that life’s a process, a progression towards a decent recipe? And that everyone else is experimenting, too? That we’re all just a bunch of amateurs knocking about the great big test kitchen of life?
How do you pare away the false selves, the selves others have made for you, and know the right one(s) to be true to?
What does it mean to “be true”? At what cost – to yourself, to others?
See what I mean about posing questions?
Then again, aphorisms fall into the category of Folk Wisdom and Common Sense, which like religious instruction doesn’t reward (or stand up under) too much critical inquiry.
Meaning, shut up and just go with it.
Whatever it means to you at any given time, if it catches you in a moment of passion or despair and helps you maintain a measure of equanimity, then take it for the momentary respite it is and leave the worrying-it-to-death alone. I guess.
Header image: WikiCommons