Monday, September 03, 2012

Be yourself! Sorta.

Just recently I've been seeing a lot of general-purpose affirmations on social media sites.  And that's fine, I guess.  But as Miss V sometimes complains, I can be literal-minded about certain subjects.  I guess she's right, because the other day I started thinking -- what does it really mean when these affirmations urge you to "be yourself"?

There's all manner of rah-rah inspirational advice urging people to be authentically themselves, but it's all crap.  What we mean is something more like "Be yourself within rigid socially-acceptable parameters."  It's only common sense not to want everyone to be authentic at all costs.  Nobody really wants to encourage would-be mass murderers or hardened pedophiles to let it all hang out, right?  Nor would we be comfortable with people who engaged in less damaging but exuberantly anti-social activities -- say, picking their noses with reckless abandon, letting fly with a 30-second cabbage toot in church, ingesting controlled substances at volumes that would make Charlie Sheen blanch, or playing the old-fashioned hillbilly endurance game of I Done Had My Bath Last May.  (By the way, if any of these things sound like Big Fun to you, let me give you some highly personalized advice: please, don't be yourself.  You're not very good at it.)  If you expect others to take you just as you are, with no special effort on your part, try looking up the words of the filk song "Jack the Slob and the Goddess of Love" sometime.  'Nuff said.

OK, then, if we don't really want people to be themselves, what are we trying to get them to do?  Maybe the advice should read something a little closer to this: "Find and develop your unique potential for doing good in the world."  This is very different from "be yourself."  It's closer to "be the best version of yourself."  Of course, this variation brings its own challenges: what does it mean to be the best version of yourself?  How do you determine what "best" is?  Is it the version that brings the most personal comfort?  Is "best" a synonym or an antonym for "most authentic"?  And for that matter, is personal authenticity the most important thing, and who determines what that looks like?

I'm still mulling over some of these questions, and I probably will be for some time if not the rest of my life, but here's what I've sketched out so far:  the best version of yourself probably requires some effort to achieve, though not Herculean effort.  It's the repetitive, daily activity of taking a hard look at your own behavior, monitoring how closely your choices reflect your ethical beliefs, and making adjustments so that your actions hew to your ethics as closely as is practicable.  It may not be comfortable, in the sense that it hardly fosters feelings of complacency, but it probably creates a long-term sense of inner peace, since you don't have to live with constant nagging feelings of hypocrisy or cognitive dissonance.  Being the best version of yourself also involves discovering your particular talent -- something you can do well that's beneficial both to you and to others -- and honing that talent through practice and education until it shines.

Any additional thoughts about being one's best self?  Or have you noticed any other affirmative advice that seems kind of sketchy on second glance?

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