As 2021 gasps its way into 2022, and I take stock of life the way you’re obligated to do around the new year, my thoughts keep returning to the old adage, “To thine own self be true.”
You’ve probably heard of it. It originally appeared in William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (and really, how many famous phrases did that dude come up with?). It was spoken by Polonius, chief counsellor to Claudius:
“This above all: to thine own self be true
And it must follow, as the night the day
Thou canst not then be false to any man/Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!”
I’m not exactly sure of the context because it has been a long, long time since I read Hamlet, and I’m not going to do it today, either. All I know is, the passage is part of a lecture on how to live provided by Polonious to Laertes. It also includes another famous line: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.”
Now, I’ve always taken “To thine own self be true” to mean something like this: Live according to your own set of standards. Don’t make decisions that are not in your own best interest. Keep your own counsel. Don’t please others at the expense of pleasing yourself. Don’t bow to the world if the world doesn’t fit your worldview.
Whether or not I’ve interpreted it accurately is up for debate. You’d be surprised how many different interpretations you might find out there. Google it sometime. I did.
One website assigned no less than three different meanings to the phrase “To thine own self be true:”
- You can better judge yourself if you have done what you should or could have done.
- You must be honest in your ways and relations.
- You must always do the right thing. (Take a bow, Spike Lee)
None of these has much to do with my own interpretation of the phrase, which is much more centered on living by your own rules and listening to your own voice.
It could be that my interpretation is rooted in my background as an American, influenced by my home country’s obsession with individualism and individual liberty. I come from the land of the lone cowboy, riding high astride his horse, making his way through the Wild West, free of societal constraints and government oppression, living for himself, taking orders from nobody, beholden to no one, killing his own food and making love to only sagebrush and coyotes.
We’re a rugged lot, we Americans. At least until the central air conditioning stops working.
Have I always lived according to my own interpretation of the phrase? Not all of the time, no. But much of the time. More than most, I’d guess – at least in terms of not allowing myself to be trapped in situations that ran contrary to my own wants and needs, which often involved nothing more noble than restlessness or laziness. I never had a problem picking up and leaving if things no longer suited me. I practically made a lifestyle of it until well into my 30s.
But then you grow up a bit, forge relationships, start your own family, and take on responsibilities that don’t allow you to stay parked inside your own head all the time. You have to make allowances for others. You have to be true to their own selves as well as thine own. Compromise becomes a way of life – your compromises for them, theirs for you.
You begin to understand that living by your own rules was all a mirage, misguided from the start, an exercise in delusion, fed by a deep-seated fear of ever having to depend on anyone else, compounded by an even bigger fear of anyone else having control over your life.
Because, let’s face it: Our lives are controlled by so many external forces you’d need a calculator to add them all up. Family relationships, social mores, laws, government edicts, power companies, water companies, gas companies, friendships, money, weather, employment, disease, pandemics, property, transit, infrastructure, economic trends, political trends, cultural trends, carburetors, housing, traffic signs, religion, the washing machine, education, your neighbor, your food supply, your workmate, your boss, your landlord or tenant, your bank, the ATM machine and computer, the iPhone and corner grocery, the taxman, city inspectors, bill collectors – oh, it’s just a ball of confusion.
I’ve always been of the mind that I dance to the beat of my own drummer. In truth, I dance to the same beat most everyone else dances to. The world spins us wherever it wants to spin us, and if it wants to throw us off, it will do that, too. Yes, we have the ability to make individual decisions – all the way up to the point when we don’t. Which happens way more than many of us would care to admit.
Two years ago, 99% of the world didn’t wear a face mask or get their noses swabbed before and after booking an international flight. But today, on the cusp of 2022?
I wear a face mask pretty much every day and don’t think twice about it. I stand in the GD line for the GD swab before and after taking a GD international flight, and resent every GD second of it, but there I am, doing it anyway, because sometimes it’s more important to be true to the rest of the world than true to thine own self.
I might be doing these things the rest of my life. So might you. Maybe we’ll resent them the rest of our lives, but if it’s what we’re supposed to do, we’ll probably do it.
As another saying so expertly advises us: It is what it is.
And this world, my friends, is what it is. You are asked to do things that might go against your own wishes, like wearing a mask, or getting vaccinated, or being forced into and out of lockdown.
But it is what it is.
And by the way: That wise old adage, “To thine own self be true?”
Many Shakespeare scholars are having a good laugh over the gravity it has attained through the centuries. As one website put it:
“Polonius is pompous, hypocritical, and empty… It is a tribute to Shakespeare that he can produce a speech that is quoted for four hundred years as definitive wisdom about human behavior although it comes from a character who is a disreputable and hypocritical empty vessel.”
Well now, ain’t that a kick? All these years I’ve been taking “To thine own self be true” as a guiding principle, maybe the most important piece of advice in my life.
And the guy who spoke it was a clueless asshole.
Happy New Year!