We’ve all heard of that phrase before. Or at least a variation of it. When we were young, we heard it from Disney shows where profanity is magically never muttered. When we become old, we will hear it from a self-help book, with the obligatory Oprah’s preface full of praises. And when we are anywhere in between, we will probably hear it from our hipster friends, because they are just so cool. To these people, individuality is the most important thing in the world, and to sacrifice that for any reasons is akin to sinning.
And I am here to tell you that it is all bullshit.
Now upon reading that sentence, Disney, the self-help gurus, and the hipsters would no doubt gasp in horror and roll their eyes in contempt. Disney would first berate me for swearing. Then Hannah Montana would remind me that everyone is special and that you should never ever pretend to be someone you are not just to become one of the “popular” people (a fate worse than death, it would seem). But in real life, we don’t make friends with terrible people not because we wouldn’t “be ourselves,” but because they are terrible people. What if the lonely protagonist is a neo-Nazi and the “popular crowd” is the kittens club? Would Disney offer the same moral then? On the other hand, Oprah would shake her head, and say that unhappy people are unhappy because they are not being themselves. But what if we were the ones that caused our own unhappiness? Do we take responsibility for it, or are we exonerated? Finally, hipsters would interrupt rudely, yelling that we should “be ourselves” instead of being a sheep that only does what other people are doing. But what if the sheep is doing the right thing? Do we listen to their advice, or do we dye our fleece black and listen to bad music?
To be or not be ourselves, that is the question. Actually, this entire question can be rendered into a single word: change. Do we change and grow, or do we stagnate and sink? Mother Nature changes herself all the time. The leaves fall. A flower blooms. Young men grow older and become, dare I say it, bald. But all the changes occur for a good reason. Fallen leaves decompose to support trees. Flowers bloom to herald spring. Bald men become teachers to young men. Change is vital and necessary.
However, when we are being ourselves, we are not changing. We grasp for that every last bit of ourselves, unwilling to let go. Worse still, we begin to think that we are perfect, that we are somehow “special”, and that we are not required to change. “There must be a reason why we are this way,” we muse, and we begin to believe that any changes we make to ourselves are somehow “fake” and unauthentic. That it is shameful to admit that we are imperfect and that we make mistakes. When consequences of our mistakes catch up to us, we shrug them off as a facet of ourselves. When failures start to threaten us, we accept them. “I am just not good at this.” We give up, accepting the failure to be part of who we are, and merrily go on our way. We are locked within ourselves, forever trapped in a cage made out of our “self-worth.”
But then, other people begin to recognize our flaws, and they confront us over them. But our hubris blinds us. When friends offer constructive criticism, we immediately accuse them of not accepting us for who we are. When parents discipline us to get to work, we begrudge them for not forgiving the “littlest” of mistakes. “And what did they mean when they called me that? I am just being honest!” By being ourselves, we fail to see the existence of others. We place the utmost importance on our own wellbeing and satisfaction. People must accept us who we are, or they are the “popular” people. We fight and we altercate, and we become selfish creatures that are unwilling to compromise. It is as if we are giants walking among mortals.
But what do we do when failures shatter our illusions? What do we do when relationships become broken? And what do we do when reality comes knocking on our door?