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To thine own self be true. May 4, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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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!