Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Importance Of Being Yourself

The Human Being
Happiness can only exist in acceptance.
George Orwell

My religion is to seek for truth in life and for life in truth, even knowing that I shall not find them while I live.
Miguel de Unamuno [1864-1936], Spanish poet, philosopher and writer

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by Perry J. Greenbaum

One of my favourite existential thinkers is Miguel de Unamuno. In the Tragic Sense of Life (an English translation of Del Sentimiento Trágico de la Vida), Dr. Unamuno recounts a conversation that took place with one of his best friends, one with whom he took frequent walks:
On a certain occasion this friend remarked to me; "I should like to be So-and-so (naming someone, and I said: "That is what I shall never be able to understand—that one should want to be someone else. To want to be someone else is to cease to be who one is. I understand that one should wish to have what someone else has, his wealth or his knowledge; but to be someone else, that is a thing I cannot comprehend." (9)
Neither can I. Now the expression "being yourself" might be casually thrown out too much, usually as a reminder to the person's essential being. The reason that this sentiment is universal, however, is that there is a powerful instinct within us to be precisely who we think we are, or at least meant to be in the karma wheel of life. Hence the expression "to find yourself." And, if truth be told, would you really want to live your life as someone else? That does not mean you cannot improve areas of yourself, particularly if you find them deficient in some way. There are no shortage of both serious psychological texts and self-help books that focus on making positive changes.

But, can you really change your core being? Such a being as yourself has been developed, so to speak by a combination of genetic influences and environmental effects, a combination of your parent's genes and the way that you grew up. Our obsession with trying to be someone else, like a celebrity, so as to conform to some societal notion of normal or acceptable behaviour is to deny yourself. And it's patently absurd and self-defeating. You will lose self-respect and get nothing of value in the bargain (Think Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby)

Today's times are conformist to a large degree. The individual pressure (and fear) to conform to societal notions, partly resulting from advertising interests, stigmatization of the other and self-censorship, has lead to a giving up of individuality and individual freedom. In a society with a lot of putative choices, all roads become narrow and directed. The end result is an inability to make individual choices, and a loss of human dignity. The public spaces, meant for freedom of expression, has become smaller, and the need to conform larger.

If you notice very young pre-school-age children, you will note that they are very comfortable with themselves. Of course, we do not wish to remain as children in thought, action and all behaviours. That would make us childish individuals, and there are enough of those types already. But we can have a comfort with ourselves, which brings self-respect and self-acceptance.

The struggle is to be yourself is not easy, notably when so many false values accost you daily. The trick is to be yourself without imposing your values or intruding on others' beliefs, while maintaining self-respect and self-dignity, and equally providing the same for people around you.

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A version of this article appeared in Perry J Greenbaum