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To thine own self be true. May 4, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
Tags: , , , ,

It’s Sunday, and our friend Ben is going to give you a little sermon. But I’ll leave the sacred in the hands of God, and instead focus on a secular subject, one of God’s creations—namely, us.

This post came about because of two things that came together last night in one of the synchronicities that we humans are uniquely equipped to recognize and appreciate. First, our friend Ben was having an e-mail conversation with a friend, and the last sentence he sent ended with “but that’s me.” Then, after supper, Silence Dogood and I settled in to watch Queen Latifah in “Last Holiday.” (We’ve been Queen Latifah fans since seeing her wonderful performance in “Chicago.”)

In the movie, Queen Latifah is a sales clerk who dreams of greater things. When told she has three weeks to live, she cashes in her savings and heads off to make some of those dreams come true. Of course, not only is the diagnosis false, but as the film ends we see Queen Latifah’s character at the grand opening of her own restaurant, with Emeril on one side and the love of her life on the other. The moral of the movie is that she always knew who she was, but it took the scare of a lifetime to make her be true to herself.

This is a topic that is dear to our friend Ben’s heart. After a lifetime of watching real-life people’s triumphs and disappointments, of seeing them be happy or miserable, engaged or bored, directing their lives or being directed by them, I have come to a conclusion: Just as Jesus reduced all the sacred commandments to the great two, all the secular wisdom in the world can be summed up in two “commandments.”

The first, from the Oracle at Delphi: Know thyself.

The second, from the Bard of Avon: To thine own self be true.

If you can do just these two things, you will be at peace. You will be content. More, you will be happy. You will be generous. And you will be wise.

Why? To know yourself is not just to understand who you are and what you want. It also shines the bright light of understanding on why you act and react the way you do. Rather than feeling like a victim of life, an actor forced onto stage without having had a chance to even see the script, never knowing why events are unfolding as they do, you move from a core of certainty. You are not a puppet being manipulated by an unseen hand, you are a person behaving as you do and making the choices you do because of who you are. No one can control the externals of their life, try as they may. But if you know yourself, the internals are entirely at your command. You are the captain of your ship, and self-knowledge is your anchor, what T.S. Eliot called “the still point of the turning world.”

Knowing yourself is the key, but being true to yourself is what turns it, opening the door to reveal a world of joy and delight. Being true to yourself is integrating: It integrates your internal self with your external actions. And remember, the opposite of “integration” is “disintegration.” The further your behavior strays from your core self, the tighter you’re stretched, and the more tension you’re under. Eventually, cracks will form, and if you don’t make changes to move back towards integration, those cracks will widen into chasms.

Remember, too, that “integration” and “integrity” share the same root: By being true to yourself, you become a person of integrity. Your actions and choices are authentic. They are expanding. But unlike the horrific, diminishing stretching that occurs when you are false to yourself, in this case, the expansion is like a pool of light that effortlessly grows and shines upon all it touches. You are not the only one that benefits. As Shakespeare has Polonius add, “thou canst not then be false to any man.”

This is because, when you know yourself and are true to yourself, you are at peace with your life, your place in the world, and whatever the future holds. You can rejoice in the accomplishments of others rather than feeling threatened. You realize that life is not a competition; you are already a winner, and happiness and contentment are the prizes. You can love other people for who they are, independent of what they can do for you. You can look out at the beauty and wonder of the world and really see it, give thanks for it, because there is room in you for delight. There is room in you for all good things, because self-knowledge and self-acceptance drive out chaos and turmoil, and chaos and turmoil will expand to fill all space.

So if you’re Mr. Charles Moran, senior account analyst, who dreams of being Charlie Moran, landscaper; a Wal-Mart cashier who longs to be a pastry chef; a monk who wants to be a rapper, or a rapper who wants to be a monk, don’t wait for a terminal diagnosis to think of ways to turn your life around. Your CAT scan machine is unlikely to be as faulty as Queen Latifah’s.

No need to reach for the stars, either, because when you know and are true to yourself, the stars are inside you. Love to cook and invent your own recipes, like Silence? So you’re not the next Emeril or Rachael Ray. Maybe you’ll end up giving the occasional lecture on garden-fresh cooking, as Silence does, to small but enthusiastic audiences. Maybe you’ll end up publishing a cookbook. Maybe you’ll just continue to delight family and friends with your creations. Whatever the end result, it’s the joy of cooking and creating the dishes that’s the real deal. Anything else is extra. As our friend Ben’s mother so wisely pointed out when the youthful Ben was fretting over the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, “A poet is someone who writes poems.” Not, in other words, someone who wins competitions. The ecstacy of creation should be reward enough. Or, as some wise and unknown soul once put it, the secret of happiness is knowing that whatever you have is just enough.  

Who are you? What can you do to be true to yourself?

Next time you find yourself saying “that’s me,” slow down a moment. Give yourself a little time to understand and appreciate who “me” is. Thou canst not then be false to any man. And our friend Ben says “amen” to that!     



1. deb - May 4, 2008

Great post with wonderful advise.

Thanks, Deb! I think people just need to trust themselves more.

2. Amy - May 4, 2008

I can say a hearty “Amen” to this post 🙂 Doing a series of personality tests over the last few weeks has opened the door to reading books…I’m learning many things about myself that deep down I *already knew* but had been fighting against. I know too well how it feels to experience “disintegration” rather than “integration” from trying to be someone I’m not 🙂 It’s been a wonderful experience to start viewing my personality as different from the majority, rather than flawed.

Good for you, Amy, and thanks! I’ll never forget reading research that showed that eccentric–i.e., more strongly individualistic–people led happier, more fulfilled lives. I think that’s a lesson that the British have long known but that we are just learning.

3. ceecee - May 4, 2008

Wonderful thoughts to share with us all. My dear sister, who is beyond change, has always let exterior forces dictate who she is. I wish she could take a lesson from you. She’d be much happier—far less drama in her life.

My own sister’s in the same boat as yours, CeeCee–nothing’s ever her fault, nothing ever happens as a result of her own actions, she’s just a victim of a miserable fate, “miserable” being the operative word.

4. Barbee' - May 5, 2008

This is a beautiful, beautiful post. Well put together and thought provoking. I suspect I will be back to read it again. Thank you.

Thank *you*, Barbee’!

5. Melanie - May 5, 2008

Thank you so much for taking the time to post this beautiful message. It was almost perfect. That is, it was perfect until I got to the end and saw #%^**&^ Stinkbugs.

My brain thought those stinkbugs were part of the post and it almost had whiplash 🙂

Really though, it was delightful. Now I have to go back and read what those awful stinkbugs have been doing.

Ha!!! Oh, dear. Not quite the mood I was trying for! Now you’ve made *me* laugh…

6. Jean Ann - May 5, 2008

Hmmm, this is a wonderful synchronistic posting…a few posts ago, I told everyone that I left my day job in order to a) spend more time with the kids and b) develop my entrepreneurial efforts. My new website http://www.gardenertofarmer.com is my first stab at making my passion a bigger part of my life…and although I have fears, I am also unbelievably happy!

Way to go, Jean Ann!!! And thanks so much for sharing your website with us. Definitely after our own hearts!

7. Cinj - May 6, 2008

Excellent post. I am still working on finding out what I need to do to be true to myself. I am so weird though, I keep wondering about these things and I can’t seem to find the answers. Does anyone else do this?

On another subject, my sister sounds much like yours and CeeCee’s. Drives me crazy!

Thanks, Cinj! It’ll come to you. You’re dealing with a lot of distractions right now. As for your sister, well: sisters! Sheesh.

8. Jessica Bee - July 12, 2008

Thank you for this. I was doing a bit of research on the etymology of “to thine own self be true” and happened upon its brilliance … timing is everything and I’m so fortunate to have not only been brought to your words but to have paid existential attention to them.

Thank you so much, Jessica! What a generous and humbling thing to say. I get a lot of grief from friends who tell me that blogging’s just wasting my time (presumably, since it doesn’t pay anything). Starting my day with a comment like this is all the validation I need!

9. Antoinette Rhodes - July 20, 2008

As I was reading this, I was going to end it by saying Amen Brother, and then I read the ending. I sort of got ahead of myself. Anyway, so cool. You took the words – most of them – right out of my mouth. You see, I have been saying ‘to thine own self be true’ for quite some time. Today, I said it to a client. I thought I would do a google search on the phrase – and I clicked on to this blog. I have never replied to a blog, weird word, blog. And I read that you think just like me. Amen Brother.

Thank you, Antoinette! “Blog” is a weird word, isn’t it? A combination of “web” and “log.” You’d think they could have come up with something that didn’t sound so ugly!

10. tj - August 18, 2008

The question occurs to me often. Is who I think I am really who I want to be and who I then try to convince myself of? Am I attempting to fulfill some ideal image of myself , a self which is no more ‘real’ than anyone else’s, mine only chasing after an (arguably) more noble, high-minded of a cause than most, preferring intellectualism, creativity and unconventionalism as ideals but which are nonetheless no more real of ideals to thine own self than any other fabricated ideal? Am I trying to convince myself and the world that I am someone merely because it is who I would like to be, or are my feeling, motivations and ideals a natural reflection of who I genuinely am? Sartre might say that whatever “self” you think you are you are then not that self, and therefor, I reason, trying to “know thy self” would be futile. I am not quite so sure he is right on that one, for many of the reasons you eloquently explicated above. I am also not quite sure exactly who my own true self is, but I know that I am learning, and that I am trying to be true to whatever or whoever that self is.

Thanks for posting this, tj! Food for thought indeed. Then there’s the whole issue of Plato’s ideals and whether we’re really all different expressions of the one True Self. I myself think the key is integration—when you feel perfectly at peace with yourself, in yourself, then you’re being true to yourself, and it’s as simple as that.

11. Maryellen - August 31, 2008

Thank you for this–an unexpected blessing to find your post while I was researching the quote that inspired this whole discussion. So eloquently observed and so many wonderful comments. We have just moved overseas, which does a lot to throw off one’s equilibrium. I will be referring to your words often as I try to find my footing here. I have to admit, worrying though it is, that I see a lot of myself in your description of your sister (with the exception of the “miserable” part). Hopefully, recognition is part of the solution.

All the best to you.

And to you, Maryellen! I hope you have a wonderful time in your overseas home!

12. Charlene - September 5, 2008

Thanks for the posting. I’ve done some major self-discovery over the course of the last 2 years. I believe so much in the importance of being true to yourself first that I even had it tattooed on my arm. Now I’m preparing a speech for a college course that I’m taking (30 yr old non-traditional student) so I wanted to do a bit more research on the quote. It’s great to read all the same things I feel written out in other’s words. Now I need to get my words out in my speech to share this great piece of advice with others.

Good for you, Charlene! Good luck with your speech and your studies!

13. mark - December 4, 2008

Inspirational thank you

Most welcome, Mark!

14. Cmwalter - February 21, 2009

Thank you for creating something that provides clarity and peace to the reader. It is through words, actions and thought that we can become the highest version of ourselves accepting every step as equal as the previous. To thine own self be true and to love every truth discovered is the answer. Pain and unhapiness are indicators you believe an untrue thought. So investigate, inquire and love exactly what is.

Thanks so much for sharing your insight!

15. David Burtner - April 26, 2009

A wise existential statement! Well done.

I would quibble with your statement that we are uniquely equipped to recognize synchronicities, but that is unimportant. I maintain that the central questions in life are: If life is a test, who is the grader? What are the standards? What is the criterion for passing? What are the consequences of passing or not?

I think we grade ourselves for certain. Do we have oversight? I doubt it . But if we do, I imagine failing to be true to yourself is the worst sin. Integrity is at the core.

What a great comment, David, and thanks! I tend to think of life not as a test but an opportunity. And what a tragedy if that opportunity is wasted! But I certainly agree that failing to be true to yourself means that you’re bound to fail at every other thing, however apparently successful you might seem, for that greatest blessing, happiness, will surely elude you…

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