Be True to Yourself (Or, Perhaps, Don’t)
Late June is graduation season which, of course, means graduation ceremonies. I’ve attended one of these already and I’m looking forward to another later this week. These can be long, grinding affairs, it’s true, and, yes, rhetoric quite often cheerfully stampedes ahead of reality, but these ceremonies are also occasions for joyous celebration. It is delightful to see wide smiles and to hear stories of obstacles overcome, challenges met, and finish-lines crossed.
Graduation ceremonies are also occasions for us to rehearse one of our most deeply cherished cultural orthodoxies: Just be true to yourself. This mantra is a staple of the graduation ceremony. I’ve heard some variation of it at all of the ceremonies I’ve attended over the years. It was probably spoken at my own, but I can’t say as I wasn’t really paying attention. And it’s a phrase that contains some truth in it. Some kids (and adults) desperately need to hear that their selves have value and worth, that their voice matters, that the world needs the unique contribution that only their selves can make. This is particularly true if someone has been ground down by negative voices in their lives or if their experience of the world has mostly been that they aren’t good enough.
Yet often when I hear these words these days, I find myself thinking, “Be true to myself?! Ugh, what a small and terrible thing to be true to! Have you ever examined an actual self?!” I can think of few things worse than a world where everyone’s highest aspirations were defined by looking in the mirror or excavating the depths of their emotional life and imagining that it yielded, without exception, the truest truth about who they really are or what they should do.
A few years ago, Adam Grant wrote a piece for The New York Times with the mostly delightful title, “Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ is Terrible Advice.” My only quibble with it is that it’s about three words too long (i.e., the first three). Grant hilariously skewers our most cherished idol of authenticity:
If I can be authentic for a moment: Nobody wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.
A decade ago, the author A. J. Jacobs spent a few weeks trying to be totally authentic. He announced to an editor that he would try to sleep with her if he were single and informed his nanny that he would like to go on a date with her if his wife left him. He informed a friend’s 5-year-old daughter that the beetle in her hands was not napping but dead. He told his in-laws that their conversation was boring. You can imagine how his experiment worked out.
“Deceit makes our world go round,” he concluded. “Without lies, marriages would crumble, workers would be fired, egos would be shattered, governments would collapse.”
In other words, if we were all completely authentic with one another and had no filter and just said what was on our minds, we would jeopardize pretty much everything in our lives, from our most important relationships to our employment to our reputations. Our selves contain some ugly things.
It’s a rather grim assessment of things, to be sure. And probably a bit overly pragmatic (i.e., things will go better for you if you keep some parts of yourself to, well, yourself). But it points toward what is, to my mind at least, an absolutely vital truth that we are in desperate need of preserving (or recovering): There are higher and better things to be true to than yourself. Indeed, a life devoted to not much more than personal authenticity will almost invariably end up wandering down all kinds of toxically narcissistic paths.
The reason for this is quite simple: Selves are not infallible guides. Not by a long shot. They are profoundly self-interested in the ways that they understand and tell the truth. They are yanked around by desire and emotion and a primal need to belong. They are only capable of understanding so much. They’re inattentive to what matters most and far too easily distracted.
And, of course, from a Christian perspective, they are [gulp] sinful. Jesus made this pretty clear throughout the gospels, but Mark 7 lays it out as plainly as anywhere:
[Jesus] went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
If we’re honest—and it’s hard to be honest, I know—when we look inside ourselves, we see that Jesus is telling the truth about us. We find goodness of all kinds, certainly. But we also find small and selfish selves. We find reactionary judgments and grudges and violence (physical or relational) and harshness and impatience. We find lust and acquisitiveness. We find fear and a suspicion of peace. We find stinginess and an utter lack of self-control. Not always, of course. But these things, along with more inspiring things, reside in the human heart. In the deepest parts of who we are, we find things that are not worth being true to.
“Be true to yourself” is, it turns out, terrible advice when it comes to how a life should be understood and lived. Or, at the very least, it’s only partial advice. The goal of life, fundamentally, is not to be true to ourselves. We need to set our sights much higher than this because there are far deeper and truer and more beautiful things to be true to. Our selves are wonderful, glorious, unique treasures. They are gifts from God and they are among the ways in which God’s love is refracted and reflected out into a world in desperate need of it. But there are parts of our selves that our only task is to die to so that better and more beautiful forms of life might be brought forth.