Earlier today, a man I respect suggested that “Be yourself” was the worst possible advice. He was followed by what seemed to me to be a barrage of tweets agreeing with him. He pointed out that I am giving that advice to men who are, usually, quite unhappy with aspects of their lives that can be laid directly upon their defects of character or “self.” Another commenter suggested that it might be better advice to suggest that one imagine an ideal self and then “be that guy.”
I’ve written elsewhere about my problems with the modern concept of “self.” As I write this now, I am going to explore the word “self” in two ways that are mutually exclusive but must both be treated as if they were absolute truth. Until we reach that point where we can live as though we understood the nature of the illusion, we must live under that illusion’s sway.
The “self” is an illusion created by the intersection of processes within the individual, just as the “community” is an illusion created by the intersection of processes occurring between individuals. If we alter these processes, we alter the “self.” Think of Phineas Gage’s head wound, the Buddha’s meditation, or my Aunt Nita’s senility.
Think, perhaps of simple maturation. I am not the same person I was when I was five (Or maybe I should push that back to age two.)
On the other hand, I am certainly that same person.
I am the same core of potentials, some realized, some thwarted. I am, still, the same manifestation of what the Divine planned. Just as no structure is as neat and tidy as the Artist’s concept or the neat white lines on blue paper, no person is quite as perfect as the Divine designed.
One of these selves is that malleable, fragile state we inhabit now. Before the spike through the brain, the moment of enlightenment or decay, the decision to change.
The other self is that impossible, transcendent state we might have been without the knowledge of good and evil. That state we might still move closer to but never quite embody.
I almost said it was the self we were compelled to become or envy or…but there is a grotesque corruption in the modern war that no longer seeks excellence, much less perfection, and that worm flourishes in our society because so many men have embraced and endorsed it. These men are not compelled toward perfection of any sort.
When I sit down with a lonely, weak, unhappy man and I tell him that the solution to his problems is to be himself, I am, I hope, sending him on a quest into the underworld where he might encounter the Pythia or the shade of Socrates and be reminded of the dictum “Know thyself.” He is required to know both selves: the failed personality struggling to survive and that more perfect self struggling to burst out and express itself through every word and deed of our subject.
Since the self is an illusion, and many of the processes that give rise to that illusion are malleable, “your self” is not a set of characteristics carved in stone, save for that pattern set in place by the Divine, through your DNA and the other mysteries that dictate certain hard-coded proclivities and aversions.
As we explore, as we set out to obey that dictum to “know thyself” and try to construct the self we might want to be, we must keep in mind the question of whether that smarter, wiser, more informed, higher self would agree with our design and its execution. We are, in effect, making such decisions for a different person and one who is perhaps a much better judge of such things than we are. We do the best we can.
As I’ve said, if we can alter the processes that create self, then we can alter the self. We do this through changes in nutrition (who are you without caffeine and sugar?), changes in company (who are you when you don’t have a boss bitching at you constantly?), exercise (who are you when you can feel your strength?) and most importantly, I think, meditation.
We can picture that intersection of processes as a core, and the environment overlays filters and screens on that core. The garbage we consume, physically and psychologically, lays its detritus in our psyche and that detritus can become a mask, of sorts. We often let other people define us, and those mad priests of Wall St and Madison Ave are experts at that corruption.
When we meditate, we begin to strip those masks away and expose the self that lays under that detritus. Exercise, training, and exposure to beauty feed that core and what emerges is…your self.
There’s a saying that inside every fat man is a fit man trying to get out. That fit man is the “real” self. I’ve never met a man who sincerely identified as “fat and weak.” He might acknowledge that is his present state, but he will never consciously fight for it as a manifestation of who he is. No matter how difficult it is to change, men do not identify with their weaknesses.
As soon as I typed that I thought of Chris Farley and Gabriel Iglesias. They built their lives around that image of being fat. And pot smokers often posit their use as a cornerstone of their identity.
I think this is a manifestation of one of those processes affected by circumstances that create a damaged sense of self that should be explored and put under the knife, at least metaphorically. Perhaps this would require priests, psychiatrists, and shamans.
Now I’m way too far out into the weeds.
For most of us, exploring and making that quest to “know thyself” is a matter of introspection and discipline, meditation and solitude. For most of us, it is a matter of stripping away the masks that have been overlayed over our “self.”
“Know thyself.” Who are you when your psyche is naked and the lies of our sick society have been stripped away or at least ignored?
That society failed us and that failure made us ask ourselves “Who am I?” at that point in our lives where a more natural society might have taken us aside and initiated us into that answer without our asking. When we asked, that society then fed us lies and errors.
So that we must now ask again, “Who am I?”
And then we must answer. Not an answer conjured from the fantasy that we can deny our heritage and our biology and the psychology impacted by the past we’ve lived through, but an answer that embraces the reality of who are are, where we have been and what we have seen and understands that we can change, but we can never be anything other than what we are.
“Know thyself”, whispered the Pythia.
And once you know yourself comes the next step of the quest: