"BE YOURSELF" AS "THE HARDEST BATTLE OF LIFE"
"Be Yourself" as "The Hardest Battle of Life"
We hear it often.
In the wild, weird times we’re living in, with pressure, gaslighting, weaponized misinformation, and confusion all around, “be yourself” often seems like a rare piece of solid, reliable, trusty advice everybody agrees on.
Advice this popular deserves to be taken seriously.
But it’s often dropped as a slogan that ends the conversation. It’s assumed to be self-explanatory, and so the conversation gets abandoned. “Be yourself! It’s that simple! The Problem Of Life, solved! Next!”
But there seems to be more to it.
It warrants some deeper digging.
What does it really mean?
A lot can be said about these two little words.
“Be yourself!” might seem like either the greatest – or the most useless – advice in the world.
It’s “useless” if it’s approached like this: “How can I not ‘be myself’? I am myself. Is not being myself even possible?”
If this is how it’s interpreted, it’s redundant.
Even more than redundant: it seems to contradict itself. It could be translated as “You should be you. You should not be not-you.”
Who is the “you” being spoken to there? In the phrase “you should be you,” is the first “you” something different from the second “you”? Is the advice really telling me to be something I’m not right now?
It sounds eerily similar to an axiom of logic. “The law of identity” goes back to Aristotle trying to find the most basic, solid ground possible: “A =A.”
Many of us can read that and say, “Thanks, Captain Obviou – er, Aristotle. ‘A = A’ isn’t doesn’t really give me much of a code to live by.”
But if that’s the case, why do we have the near-universal popularity of “be yourself”? Why is it a punchline moral-of-the-story to almost every Disney movie made in the last fifty years? Why is it seemingly everywhere these days?
There has to be more to it.
If there really is more to these two little words than it seems, then there must be something there that’s like dynamite – a little package that makes a big impact.
This would mean that there’s a lot of hidden meaning embedded in these words if you really unpack it. “Unpacking it” means teasing out any implicit assumptions that might be baked-in to the phrase that reveal more than what’s apparent on the surface.
Here’s one example.
Embedded in the idea to “be yourself” is the assumption that you either can “be yourself,” or not be yourself.
Fair enough. “A=A” aside, the idea that it’s possible to not “be yourself” – as unsettling as that might be – can seem pretty reasonable.
More than a few perceptive individuals have called attention to it.
“To be nobody but yourself in a world
which is doing its best day and night to make you like everybody else
means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight
and never stop fighting.”
- e.e. cummings
So, e.e. refers to this as a “battle.”
It’s something we have to “fight.”
But “fight” against who, or what?
Who or what would possibly have an interest in us not becoming ourselves?
Well, a few basic candidates seem pretty clear.
Certain businesses, for example, sometimes seem to want to convert us into mere “consumers.” That’s sometimes the full extent that they “care” about us, despite what their mass-marketing might try to convey. Certain politicians might work the same way: some of them might want to convert us into mere voters, taxpayers, and loyal subjects. Casinos might be the most obvious example: if they got what they wanted, they might well convert us into nothing slot-machine-handle-pullers for the rest of our lives. Netflix, to all available appearances, would be only too happy to convert us all into Cheeto-chugging couch potatoes on endless autoplay. And so on.
What’s the effect of this?
The key ingredient here is reducing each of us down from full, whole human beings to smaller, more constrictive, one-dimensional roles.
To reduce a full human to a mere consumer, for example, might basically work the way The Matrix reduces a “person” to a “battery.” It surgically extracts the useful stuff then and tosses the rest. At its worst, it’s human strip-mining.
But this isn’t necessarily malevolent on their part.
"They" just want to use us for their own ends.
It’s not necessarily some diabolical scheme (in all cases.) It’s just what they do.
Does this mean we should banish all marketing departments, politicians, casinos, Netflix?
No. They’re just “being who they are.”
They don’t necessarily have our best interests in mind, even if they pretend to.
And maybe that’s OK. We don’t necessarily always have their best interests in mind, either. It isn't really their job to carry us through life.
Netflix can be great.
The right amount? Good times. Nonstop autoplay, eighteen hours a day, week after week, month after month, year after year? Probably not great.
Businesses, even casinos, and even certain politicians can be either harmless and life-affirming or toxic, depending on our approach to them.
It’s up to us.
With the right approach, we can enjoy Netflix without letting it transform us into a moldy human couch potato spud.
It’s up to each of us to watch out for ourselves, and not get pulled into someone else turning us into what they want for their own purposes.
But in this sense, e.e. nails it.
It really is a fight.
Nietzsche probably would have agreed.
He and e.e. might have intellectually tag-teamed on this point.
“Any human being who does not wish to be part of the masses need only stop making things easy for himself. Let him follow his conscience, which calls out to him: “Be yourself! All that you are now doing, thinking, desiring, all that is not you.”
There it is, in Nietzsche’s own words: “Be yourself!”
Nietzsche is typically described as an atheist. He clearly pulled no punches when it came to criticizing Christianity. But an argument can also be made that he was no atheist. “Spiritual but not religious” might be a more accurate label.
Why? As one example, in the phrase above, he refers to the “conscience.”
What is the “conscience”? It’s often described as “something deep down inside us that knows something.” In other words, it could be a “spiritual” component of human nature.
Bertrand Russell, another prominent thinker many describe as an atheist, made a roughly similar point more recently. There’s more in us, it seems, than we often suspect.
But Nietzsche unpacks it even more.
“How can man know himself? It is a dark, mysterious business: if a hare has seven skins, a man may skin himself seventy times seven times without being able to say, ‘Now that is truly you; that is no longer your outside.’ It is also an agonizing, hazardous undertaking thus to dig into oneself, to climb down toughly and directly into the tunnels of one’s being. How easy it is thereby to give oneself such injuries as no doctor can heal.”
He seems to be talking about a certain kind of “inner work.”
He seems to agree again with e.e.: it’s a fight.
It’s not just “be here now,” or “let go,” or do some stretches. It’s a “hazardous undertaking.” It’s a “dark, mysterious business.” (Was the Disney legal department notified about this?)
And it happens with our “inner skins.”
Here, Nietzsche seems to find common ground with a 13th-Century Catholic theologian.
Meister Eckhart hit a similar note:
“A human being has so many skins inside, covering the depths of the heart. We know so many things, but we don't know ourselves! Why, thirty or forty skins or hides, as thick and hard as an ox's or bear's, cover the soul. Go into your own ground and learn to know yourself there.”
When it comes to personal development, what these figures are aiming at are no small potatoes. It’s not about losing five pounds, making more dough, or getting two hours of work done in one. It gets down to the bottom of things.
The stakes here are high.
Søren Kierkegaard is another thinker who dug into trying to understand this.
He mapped out several ways that we’re able to not become ourselves. (These are mapped out in a bit more detail here.)
But he was clear that the issue here was fundamental.
“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”
- Søren Kierkegaard
“The greatest hazard of all”?
Nothing to sneeze at. But if that’s true, then we can reverse it, which lets us see it from a different angle. Meaning: if “losing yourself” is the greatest hazard of all, then “gaining” or becoming yourself must be the greatest treasure of all.
That would make it the most important thing in the world.
It might be that the meaning of life is to “become ourselves.”
But what does that really mean, to “become yourself”?
Maybe it means to “fulfill our potential.”
Maybe it means there’s something in us that has the potential to blossom, the way a caterpillar has the “potential” to “blossom” into a butterfly.
It’s an intriguing idea. Again, it’s one (nominal) atheists Nietzsche and Bertrand Russell would seemingly agree with. This seems to confirm that everyone is religious, including atheists.
But metaphor aside, is that real? Is there some kind of human equivalent of becoming a butterfly?
Is there a “seed” in us that has the capacity to blossom?
Plenty of philosophers, psychologists, theologians, artists, mystics, and so on say so.
Some might describe it as a spiritual component of human nature. Some might describe it as our “higher self” or “best self” or “Overself,” or “God within” or “beyond within,” and so on. Some, like Nietzsche, might use the word “conscience.”
Others (eg Maslow) might describe the potential for “self-actualization.” Other psychology types might describe it more as a process along the lines of “Flow” (ala Csikszentmihalyi). Religious or spiritual traditions might describe it more as “spiritual awakening,” or a form of experiential spirituality that’s a way of "working out The Big Questions of life for yourself."
All of this is a fundamental issue in psychology and the study of human nature that often gets ignored.
But of course, each of us “fulfilling our deepest potential” doesn’t necessarily fit in with the plans others have for us.
If we’re busy developing ourselves, we might not be quite as useful to certain others.
As e.e. pointed out, some might be interested in keeping us mere consumers, voters, taxpayers, tweeters, mouse-clickers, phone-tappers, and so on. They aren’t necessarily against us. But they aren’t necessarily for us, either. “Human Reductionism!” isn’t necessarily their battle cry. But it can become a side effect, if we allow it, and if we aren’t existentially fit enough (however we might measure it.)
But those obstacles are external.
The bigger obstacles are often internal.
This one can really seem like a ten-finger head-scratcher.
How can “I” be my own obstacle when it comes to becoming myself? The very idea of that seems absurd - a whopper of a mind-pretzel.
Philosopher William Barrett made the point in Irrational Man:
“Man's feeling of homelessness, of alienation has been intensified in the midst of a bureaucratized, impersonal mass society. He has come to feel himself an outsider even within his own human society. He is trebly alienated: a stranger to God, to nature, and to the gigantic social apparatus that supplies his material wants. But the worst and final form of alienation, toward which indeed the others tend, is man's alienation from his own self.”
But there’s another critical point here.
To be yourself implies that you already know yourself.
“Know Thyself” has been bedrock advice for centuries. Somebody thought this bit of advice was important enough to carve into temples thousands of years ago.
And it tells someone to do something. “You should ‘know yourself.’”
But even that contains another implicit assumption.
The advice to “Know Thyself” implies that we don’t know ourselves already.
This is something Herman Hesse, author of Siddhartha, likely would have agreed with:
“I wanted only to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self. Why was that so very difficult?”
- Hermann Hesse
Einstein made a similar point here in describing that “a human being…experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as…a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.” This delusion, he claims, is “a kind of prison for us…”
If Einstein is onto something there, then it implies a few things.
If we’re really in “a kind of prison,” then the main task that really makes sense is to try to break out.
This brings to mind a passage from William Blake:
“If the doors of perception were cleansed,
everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.”
Does correcting Einstein’s “optical delusion” of consciousness mean working to “cleanse” the “doors of perception”?
If we don’t know ourselves already, then it seems to imply this: that the smart thing to do is to get to know ourselves. After all, the idea of going through life without “knowing yourself” seems like a guaranteed recipe for disaster.
This would seem to imply that “knowing yourself” is the “game” in life that’s most worth playing.
But if the challenge is to “know yourself,” what does that really mean?
Even that might not be as easy as it seems.
One thing seems clear, though. If we’re going to pull it off well, we need good maps.
Without a good map, things can go wrong, pretty quickly.
Michael Polanyi, for example, described what he calls “moral inversion.”
As mentioned earlier, Kierkegaard mentioned “losing the self,” and outlined a few ways that could happen.
Polanyi might not have read Kierkegaard, but he did attack the same problem on a different front.
"...the traditional forms for holding moral ideals had been shattered and their moral passions diverted into the only channels which a strictly mechanistic conception of man and society left open to them. We may call this the process of moral inversion."
- Michael Polanyi
This seems to require a little unpacking.
There’s “human nature.” To assume that for now, Polanyi asserts that a key ingredient in that involves a certain sense of the “moral.”
So far, so good. Most of us (a few notable exceptions aside), have some sense of right and wrong. If asked whether or not we have a “conscience,” most of us would say, “yes.”
But that isn’t a casual thing.
If that’s the case, it’s not a simple matter.
It would be a combination of some way we know with some way we feel that’s united in a way that’s largely unconscious.
It would require an overly-long article or two, for example, to even get started on it.
But the basics are clear and familiar: for most of us, there’s an instinctive, automatic, pre-rational sense that things like murder and rape and setting puppies on fire are wrong. They aren’t mere opinions, they’re true. It’s obvious, whether you can prove it in a court of law, or not. And things like being nice to puppies aren’t just good acts – they’re right. Even the youngest children have a baked-in sense that some things are “fair” and others aren’t, as raw, vague, and undirected as those senses might be.
We can see that as a key ingredient in human nature.
Polanyi points to what can happen when that “sense” is given no outlet.
If that “seed” is given no room to grow, or no water and sunlight, he seems to say that it can go underground and become dysfunctional. It can be like trying to put a bronco in a phone booth. It won’t work. It’s cramped, claustrophobic, and it wants expression.
If a vital human being stuffed into a constrictive box of soft nihilism with no outlet to blossom high potentials (in the form of an intellectual framework for what’s right and wrong), then the “self” doesn’t just disappear. It goes underground. It can become spiritual repression.
Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki talks about it getting “mouldy” and “warped.”
“This body of ours is something like an electric battery in which a mysterious power latently lies. When this power is not properly brought into operation, it either grows mouldy and withers away or is warped and expresses itself abnormally. It is the object of Zen, therefore, to save us from going crazy or being crippled.”
- Essays in Zen Buddhism, p13
Suzuki, Polanyi, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and others seem to be following the same trail here.
All of this can become a form of self-rejection.
There are plenty of flavors of “self-rejection.”
Some are obvious. Some are subtle.
Freud invested a lot into the idea that rejecting some parts of ourselves – “repression” – was the primary cause of our psychological dysfunction.
He might have been on to something.
But as explored in more depth here, he thought what we repressed was sex.
If that was the case, modern America should be the pinnacle of psychological health. At risk of stating the obvious, we aren't exactly in Victorian England anymore.
But he might have still been on to something.
He might have been wrong about what, exactly, we’re “repressing.” Per Suzuki, it might have been something much bigger.
Either way, the solution, according to Freud’s logic, is to not “repress” anything. The high road to inner fitness, ala Freud, would be to “let it all hang out.”
But it’s not that simple. Sometimes we don’t want to “let it all hang out.” Should we repress that? If so, aren’t we repressing something either way? Why repress one thing, and not another?
Still: the ethic of “don’t repress anything” isn’t livable in practice. It’s like an ethic of “choose everything.” It’s impossible. What it often actually translates into is flattening everything down to avoid any depths or heights.
When there are no deeper or higher levels, there’s nothing to reach for.
When there’s nothing to reach for or aspire to, things can become empty. All that’s left is, well, just this.
Some Buddhist approaches would be all for this. But in practice, as it actually happens in everyday life, “just this” tries to block out the “becoming” part of “become what you are.” It leaves only A=A, which is just a tautology. There’s nothing to do, no code to live by. This might sound like the wisdom of Yoda to some, but for most, it’s just more nihilism.
And when this happens, all that remains is mere self-assertion.
Mere self-assertion isn’t “the meaning of life.”
To “assert yourself” presumes that you already know the self you’re asserting.
For example: self-assertion could look something like this: “I want to sit on the couch, chug Cheetos, and burp, and nobody can tell me not to, and I’m totally awesome for doing it. Why? Because I declare it so. I create my own reality, and that’s it. That’s my will to power, and you can like it or leave it. Now, pass me the bag.”
Is there something off in this thinking?
Maybe the problem here lies in a hidden assumption.
This approach asserts as axiomatic that the “real you” is the “couch potato, Cheeto-chugging, burpy” version.
But there are other versions that probably wouldn’t agree. Why is the Cheeto-chugger the “real” me, and not the “man in the arena, covered in dust and sweat and blood,” giving-it-all-you’ve-got, “be all you can be” version?
What is the “real me”?
This also isn’t abstract navel-gazing.
There are plenty of moments when people say, “I wasn’t myself.”
"Crimes of passion" are a good example. Individuals sometimes say, "I don't know what came over me," and sometimes spend the rest of their lives paying for it.
And if it happens during crimes of passion, it can happen during quieter moments, too.
There’s also the opposite of the “crime of passion.” Most of us have experienced moments when “I am most myself.”
These experiences point toward a genuine, objective yardstick for “being yourself,” however unconscious it might usually be.
It can also point toward the ways it can go wrong. Meaning, it can point to turf where things like healthy self-assertiveness, self-awareness, and a capacity for introspection can cross the line into an unhealthy self-absorption and narcissism.
All of this points in the direction of another basic idea.
There’s the “self,” and there’s also the “not-self.”
Eckhart said it clearly:
“The more deeply we are our true selves, the less self is in us.”
That’s a critical point.
If the Meister is on to something, then it means there should be a kind of sorting process that takes place. There’s separating out the baby from the bathwater. We don’t want to keep the bathwater and throw out the baby. But when it comes to all this, knowing the differences between the two isn’t always as easy as it might sound.
But this seems to be a key component of the “inner work” involved in “becoming ourselves.” We have to sort the “true self” from the other “self.” The task is to sort the “real self” from the “not-self.”
And it takes work.
"No, when the fight begins with himself,
A man's worth something."
- Robert Browning
Otherwise, the risk lies in affirming the “not-self.” It’s like getting tricked into playing for the other team, and against your own.
Or, there’s the other risk: doing nothing. Keeping Netflix on autoplay. The risk there is that the seed never sprouts. There are never enough Cheetos to completely cover up the angst. It always peeks through.
A key ingredient in this is aspiration.
Most of us often experience a conflict between “accepting myself as I am” and “striving to be better.”
These often contradict. We often try to resolve this by getting rid of either one side or the other. Sometimes the “accepting myself” effort is the result of an earlier effort to overcome self-hatred. The “striving to be better” push can be seen as a regression back to self-hatred, or another form of repression.
But maybe there’s room for both.
If that’s the case, there’s room to both “accept oneself as one is” while at the same time “challenging oneself to be more.” It doesn’t reject oneself as one is, but it doesn’t reject oneself as one can be, either. It allows room for both “being,” and “becoming.”
The aspirational, “be better!” side can sometimes get rejected. (This is a toxic side of the self-esteem movement that insists on mindless affirmation of everything.) When this happens, the situation can become a caterpillar who insists on being content as a caterpillar, and never aspiring for more.
But imagine the caterpillar’s nagging mom comes along and tells him to get off his lazy duff and “Build a cocoon or something!” His response might be that she’s damaging his self-esteem, and is discouraging him from “being himself.”
But the reality is just the opposite. Nietzsche, Meister, e. e. Michael, Søren, and plenty of others would likely agree. “That’s not what we meant, at all.”
So, what did they actually mean, then?
Many folks like Hume, certain Buddhists, and a number of scientists these days, go searching for the “self” and find “nothing.”
The result of this sometimes becomes a form of soft nihilism in various disguises – or in some cases, hard nihilism.
(This might reflect a flaw in their approach. They might be involved in taking a radio apart and dissembling it into pieces because they’re trying to find a radio signal. And they’re doing it all with a microscope. When they don’t find the radio signal with a microscope, they declare that the soul of the radio doesn’t exist, so hey, do what you want.)
But Søren spelled it out even further.
Kierkegaard didn’t approach the “self” as an isolated, distinct, separate entity.
He talked about the “self” in regards to relations.
There’s the “self in relation to others,” for example. Sometimes we define ourselves by what others think about us.
He also spoke about the “self in relation to God.” If there really is a "God," after all – no matter your worldview – then objectively, that would be the measure that matters in the end. That’s the “real self” that’s ultimately important, even in regard just to living a good life, here and now.
The choice can come down to nihilistic relativism on the one side and some form of objective truth on the other. On one side is “the self in relation to itself, or other selves,” with no other yardstick for anyone to use for anything.
On the other side is an actual yardstick of objective truth. It might be less conscious, or more. The key, though, is the idea of the objective truth of a "real self." Between the Cheeto-chugging, couch potato self and the self that’s out in the world, going for it, "covered in dust and sweat and blood" – one of these is genuinely closer to the mark than the other. It might be hard to prove in court, but still true.
This points us in the direction of common sense: someone with certain talents and capabilities, for example, should develop those. If someone has gifts, they should develop those. To develop those deeper talents and capabilities is a good thing. Maybe they’re buried, underground, existing mostly as potentials, starving for sunlight and water.
But with the right conditions, they’re ready. Those potentials can blossom into what becomes our future selves.
And maybe that’s what we should “be.”
But the “should” part often opens up a can of worms.
“Should” often brings up the idea of beating ourselves up for not being what we imagine we should be. When that becomes too much and gets toxic, we often rebel against that with a forced self-acceptance.
This can mean threading the needle between “accepting myself as I am” while simultaneously “challenging myself to be more.”
It can mean holding the tension between those two seemingly contradictory ideas, and not aborting one or the other. While the “accept myself as I am” self-esteem approach is all the rage today, we can’t seem to fully stamp out the idea that there’s also more.
And that can be a good thing.
That doesn’t have to be oppressive or self-rejecting. That’s the toxic version of the aspirational. With the right approach, we can avoid both the toxic version of “the way up,” and also “the way down.”
This can also thread the needle between two extremes. At one extreme, there are distorted, false ideas about ourselves, or “ego” (that result in ego inflation and all kinds of insanity.) On the other, there are nihilistic ideas that claim there is no “self” anyway, so why bother with anything. Between these two, there’s health self-development, which potentially culminates in a healthy form of – ironically enough – selflessness.
The tough teacher, coach, or drill sergeant doesn’t just accept a new recruit as they are. They challenge them. But they don’t just beat them to a pulp, either.
They shape them into becoming what they can be.
And quite often, it’s worth it.
After all, if all this is roughly on target, “becoming yourself” is, in a way, “what it’s about.”
It’s not just a good thing. It’s enough.
The result of all this isn’t a brag-worthy “perfected” self that never makes mistakes and is always wearing the cool jeans.
The result seems to be something more like a certain mix of self and selflessness that neutralizes the issue entirely. It’s not “pro” or “anti.” It threads the needle. That’s not what it’s about.
"The true value of a human being
is determined primarily
by the measure and sense in which
he has attained liberation from the self."
- Albert Einstein
If Al is roughly in line there, then given the choice between gaining the whole world and losing your self, the right choice is the self. The “real” self, that is – or in the foggy, dizzy confusion of the wild world, our best shot at it.
It’s not an easy road. Again, it takes a certain kind of work. The world, it seems, will often fight us all the way. It would often prefer that we’d give ourselves to it instead of overcoming it. It might even try to convince us that giving ourselves to it is the way to “be ourselves.”
But if the world fights us on this, then this is something worth fighting for.
“The greatest thing in the world
is to know how to be oneself.”
- Michel de Montaigne
So, yes: “be yourself” can a tricky business.
But if we handle them properly, those two words can help guide us across some treacherous existential terrain.
When it comes to advice about all the things we can do with our lives, we hear plenty about what we might acquire, achieve, or accomplish.
But we hear less about something else.
What we become.
How important is that?
More valuable, perhaps, than the whole world.