As my daughters graduate, they’re hounded by this hollow motto of Western capitalism. What should we say instead?
Their entire lives, my children have been hounded by one simple yet relentless, cruel and existentially meaningless phrase. I’m pretty sure yours have, too. It has nipped at their heels as they’ve negotiated, alone or with assistance, every transition our society requires them to make on their lonely way to maturity. It has dogged them mercilessly through every audition – for a place in pre-school, kindergarten, high school and college; summer jobs and school plays; making new friends and keeping the old. It has nagged at them as they’ve learned how to make choices that will be both pleasing to themselves and satisfy the obscure ambitions of their parents – choices about what clothes to wear, what food to eat and how much of it, what music to listen to, what summer camp to go to, how to share their own feelings and protect their own privacy. It has whispered insidiously in their ear as they have sought to fashion some kind of understanding of who they are, what kind of person they want to be or think they should be, and what sort of place they feel entitled to occupy in this world. Right now, as one daughter graduates from college and the other from high school, its voice is perhaps as shrill, insistent and inescapable as it has ever been throughout their brief lives.
That phrase, of course, is “Just be yourself” – the motto inscribed on the family crest of late-capitalist Western individualism. It is the invisible lattice, the matrix on which all social interaction and expectation are constructed, and without which we might very well cease to exist as a society and to recognize ourselves in the mirror. Ever since Polonius told 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” as he sent him off to college overseas, it has been both the mating call and the password to success for the striving classes.
Yet I am deeply ambivalent about imparting it to my graduating daughters for a golden rule as they make their way into their new lives. Advice from a parent to a child is supposed to be based on experience, deliberation and wisdom. And it has been my experience, which I have tried to parse as deliberately and wisely as I am able, that telling your children to just be themselves is fraudulent, confounding and misleading. Even when heavily burdened with caveats, it’s barely more than hollow doublespeak.
To be yourself or be true to yourself, you must, of course, know yourself. And yet, when you consider for even one brief moment the sort of people who seem to know themselves well enough to be themselves, they’re pretty much the opposite of who you would want your children to be. A man who knows himself is someone who is dead certain of what he wants and makes all his choices – about career, mate, income level, spirituality, politics – with a view to acquiring it. A man who knows himself is one who cannot entertain the idea that he might be wrong, or that there may be two or more viable ways of interpreting an issue or solving a problem. A man who knows himself projects that arrogance into his judgement of others, and formulates opinions about them that are almost inescapably ill-founded and unshakable. In the life and ideas of a man who knows himself (or even thinks he knows himself), there is no room for the whimsy, ambivalence, doubt, nuance, curiosity and inquisitiveness upon which all creative thought is based. If you know someone who understands or believes he understands everything that makes him think, feel, behave and react the way he does, chances are you don’t like him very much.