“Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that. Do the things at which you are great, not what you were never made for.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson –
I like this quote from transcendenalist poet and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is from his essay, Self Reliance. This essay was first published in 1841. Throughout his life, Emerson kept journals in which he collected many of his thoughts and daily activities. He returned to these journals for inspiration for many of his works.
The advice about being oneself, however, is far older than Emerson and his 19th century writings. We find the counsel appearing many times in many places.
Shakespeare’s tragedy, Hamlet, written around 1600, includes these lines, spoken by Polonius to his son, Laertes:
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.
There are some questions, however, as to precisely how this should be interpreted. Although we quote these lines frequently and intend them as a reminder to “BE OURSELVES”, perhaps the original meaning is slightly less noble. Polonius, it seems, was actually warning his son not to engage in dubious enterprises that might have negative outcomes. Rather than the high-minded sentiment we take it as today, his advice might more accurately be seen as a reminder to “TAKE CARE OF NUMBER ONE”. Personally, I prefer the more spiritual interpretation.
Another place in history where we find this advice is ancient Greece.
These words are one of the Delphic maxims — wisdom arising from the Delphic oracles — and was inscribed at the Temple of Apollo according to the Greek writer Pausanias. Again, its meaning may not be exactly the same as our present-day interepretation.
The Suda, a 10th-century encyclopedia of Greek knowledge, tells us that:
…the proverb is applied to those whose boasts exceed what they are.
Rather than encouraging words, perhaps the admonition to KNOW THYSELF was actually intended to take one down a peg or two. Again, I much prefer our modern look at the words.
It is important that we know who we are, that we appreciate our own unique nature. No, more than appreciate, we need to celebrate who we are. We each have a voice that needs to be heard.
Too many times, we try to be what we’re not. Sadly, we often work hard to be what we think we’re supposed to be, or worse yet, to become what someone else wants us to be.
Today, let’s celebrate life by expressing ourselves honestly, by truly being who we are, and striving to become the best we can be — as ourselves.