I want to read and learn all I can, write thoughtfully and truthfully, live according to reason and ever more mature wisdom, and savor every wonderful little gift of life.
“Be yourself.” This is something we hear all the time in our modern era, as our culture struggles to free itself from old traditions of conformity and repression. Yet I think the reason we keep chanting “Be yourself” is because we still, after decades of struggling towards individualism, do not completely embrace it. We have to keep talking about it because it’s not yet a given; we do not yet feel entirely free to be ourselves and blaze our own, unique trails.
In some cases (or, rather, in some places), the problem is the discrimination that is still deeply rooted in our culture and that pressures us to conform to the old ideal of a traditional, shiny, Christian, heterosexual, white, middle-class lifestyle. We can’t let our individual lights shine if our culture is actively snuffing them out. Blogger onehungryghost has written an excellent post called “The danger of hiding” about the harms that come from living under cultural pressure to conform when you’re different from the mold.
In other cases, the obstacles hindering us from being ourselves are not external, but only internal: we care too much about what people think of us and/or we’re afraid of hurting other people’s feelings and causing them pain by speaking our truth. I’m definitely guilty of both. That’s why I—like so many others—love the song “Brave” by Sara Bareilles (which was almost ruined for me by the silly Saturday Night Live sketch in which characters take the song’s recommended honesty to a non-ideal extreme. We still need respect and manners! We can have both—being honest and being polite do not have to be mutually exclusive). I need to “say what [I] wanna say”; I can’t write what I need to write if I’m too worried that my words might offend someone.
In still other cases, it’s a self-image problem that holds us back. We see ourselves as small, low, quiet, and insignificant. We might long for significance, but our belief that we are small—indeed, our comfort zone of being small—always limits us. Emily Dickinson knew about this:
“We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies—
The Heroism we recite
Would be a daily thing,
Did not ourselves the Cubits warp
For fear to be a King—”
And so does Marianne Williamson, as per her famous quote:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”
We’ve got to remove the mental limits we set for ourselves and aim higher, always higher. One thing that helps me with this is to imagine the great writers of the past whom I admire so much looking down on me, cheering me on, and urging me not to settle for less than my full potential.
Finally, I think another big reason that a lot of us do not fully let our lights shine is that we are too connected. We’re always just a click away from everyone else’s opinions, and it’s easy to just keep riding the trains that everyone else is on. It’s not comfortable to step away, turn off our devices, and go be in solitude long enough to hear our deepest thoughts. We don’t know how to be alone anymore. And so, even for many of us who preach “Be yourself!” with the best of them, we can’t actually be ourselves because we don’t know who we really are.
We cannot realize our full potential as individuals and as a culture until we are able to shut out the voices of the crowd and live—and create—according to our own hearts. And far from stepping on other people’s toes, when we successfully let our true selves manifest, we inspire others to do the same. We also awe them (as in Katy Perry’s song “Firework”): people who create with uninhibited individuality are the ones we admire and want to be like, but as ourselves—the bravest, fullest version of ourselves. Just as conformity is catching, so is individuality. And the more people who let their lights shine and live out their uniqueness to its full potential, the brighter, smarter, and freer our culture will be.
We must keep struggling towards inner freedom and chanting “Be yourself” until we are really, securely there. We need your unique light in the world. How will you let it shine today?
For anyone who wants some real meat on this subject while also watching a writer brilliantly manifest his own, unique self, I recommend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-reliance.”As he and Emily Dickinson (above) show, snuffing out one’s lights was a problem even back in their day! In case you don’t have the time or mental energy to read it (which is totally understandable), here are some great snippets from Emerson’s essay:
“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”
“These are the voices which we hear in solitude, but they grow faint and inaudible as we enter into the world.”
“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think.”
“For nonconformity the world whips you with its displeasure.”
“The other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency; a reverence for our past act or word, because the eyes of others have no other data for computing our orbit than our past acts, and we are loath to disappoint them.”
“I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency. Let the words be gazetted and ridiculous henceforward…Let us never bow and apologize more.”
“Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage.”
“Say to them… ‘I appeal from your customs. I must be myself. I cannot break myself any longer for you, or you. If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will still seek to deserve that you should….If you are noble, I will love you; if you are not, I will not hurt you and myself by hypocritical attentions. If you are true, but not in the same truth with me, cleave to your companions; I will seek my own. I do this not selfishly, but humbly and truly. It is alike your interest, and mine, and all men’s, however long we have dwelt in lies, to live in truth.'”
“Insist on yourself; never imitate…That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it. Where is the master who could have taught Shakspeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? Every great man is a unique.”