1. An ability to know who you are, so you know what you like, so you know what you want, so you know what you need, so you know what you must do.
2. An ability to work with the currency of Time
3. An ability to deal with the related issue of inner resistance, otherwise known as DPI (Desire to Procrastinate Indefinitely)
Now, some of you soon-to-be-adults will have no need for the chapters that follow, and if that be the case, skip ahead to the practical sections on exercise, food and sleep, and knock yourselves out. Your problems (if you have any) may have more to do with sitting back and relaxing rather than kicking your own butt, which may be sore from all the lunges and squats you’ve done over the years. There’s a section just for you a little later on. It’s called “Eight Cheap Forms of Therapy.” For the rest of us who know a little something about sitting in front of the TV for five days straight eating nothing but microwave popcorn and diet Shasta, read on.
Be yourself; no base imitator of another, but your best self. There is something which you can do better than another. Listen to the inward voice and bravely obey that.
––Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”
Everyone seems to know that Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true.” Very well. What most people ignore is that the character who says this oft-quoted line is the big blowhard and hypocrite and oh, by the way, spy, Polonius. In the context of the scene within the play Hamlet, what he really means by this bit of wisdom adopted by the New Age, is, “Make sure whatever you do, you look appropriate and protect your interests.” Still, there’s a reason the New Agers (and many Hallmarky-type cards and refrigerator magnets) have sold this quote. It’s valuable advice. Even so, because as a teenager I really hated Polonius, I prefer Socrates’s “Know Thyself,” which is more succinct.
How do you know who you are, anyway? Until you do, you can’t really do much. You just kind of whirl around in circles, following whatever is the most sparkly (or safe) person, situation, trend, idea, diatribe, religion. You get your idea of self (usually) from your family of origin, or perhaps from your social group at school or elsewhere. But what if they are all saying things that don’t ring true to you?
Get out of the house, and get out of town. Or at least, begin to question: what feels unharmonious to you about the messages you’re getting from these people? Are they walking their talk? More importantly, are you? When you listen to that core set of values deep inside yourself, does it match how you are behaving on the outside? When your inside matches your outside, we call this “integrity.” Look for others with this quality. Get to know them. These people are the real deal. As Gandhi says, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
Figuring out who you are and what you like and what you want and what you need is a lifelong pursuit. Some get clarity earlier than others; you might already have a very good idea of who you are and what you do best and what you like and what you want and (sometimes hardest of all) what you need. If you know these things about yourself already, use your knowledge to be—to paraphrase Dr. Seuss–– the Youest You you can possibly be. If you don’t, take some time to find out. It does take that most valuable resource: time. I first took this kind of time the summer I turned fourteen and was leaving the school I’d attended for seven years to move on to high school. I lay in my bed every morning, thinking, “who am I really?” And by the end of the summer I’d made some important discoveries. First, that (like my heroes, John Lennon and Bob Dylan) I was an artist, and therefore (necessarily) different from everyone else. And second, that therefore I didn’t need to worry about “fitting in” anymore. Eventually everyone would catch on that I was hip, but for now, I could march to the proverbial beat of a different drummer. With these empowering discoveries, I had a huge surge of energy and creativity. I began writing songs; I spoke out about what I believed; I started to wear a lot of red and purple, and also strange hippie garb from the Salvation Army. “I have found myself!” I announced audaciously to anyone who cared to listen. (I really impressed my mom, but my sisters told me later that they were horribly embarrassed for me.)
And indeed, I had found myself. But then “myself” changed, and I realized I looked terrible in red and that I wasn’t really a hippie. We discover ourselves like the layers of the onion. It’s an ever-evolving process. We have to keep asking ourselves what we really love, and make sure we are not swayed by the opinions of others. If all our friends were suddenly abducted on a spaceship and we were left with a totally different crowd, would we adopt the new crowd’s preferences and predilections? Would we stay true to what we loved now that we are a part of the (now Martian) crowd? Or are we secretly glad our old buddies have moved onward and upward? In fact, you might want to listen carefully to those outside your strongest spheres of influence. If you are a diehard Christian, read the Koran. If you are a lifelong Democrat, read Atlas Shrugged. If you grew up listening only to classical music, try some hip-hop. Don’t let others define you. Make up your own mind. See for yourself.
Play a game of “What Do You Like Better?” Oatmeal or chocolate chip? Red or blue? Liberty or Justice? Urban or Rural? When in the day is your energy strongest? What makes you lose your temper? Which is harder for you: anger or sadness? Which is harder for you: your own feelings or the feelings of others? Do you really like jazz? Big drooly dogs? Ernest Hemingway? Short hair? Sci-Fi? Downhill skiing? Or do you just wish you were that kind of person?
To some of you who have strong, healthy egos these questions might seem ridiculous. But I must confess that when I was in my teens I “put on” a lot of likes, dislikes and opinions that were not quite true to who I really was—and I certainly believed I had a healthy ego, and I came across to my friends as a leader. Looking back, here are some of my “should likes.”
• Rush (the band)
• Charles Dickens’ novels
• Lord of the Rings
And some “should not likes.”
• Tiny cuddly dogs
• Peter Paul & Mary
• Woody Allen (I know I’m supposed to hate him, but…)
Some of these are things I realized as a young girl. I should definitely not like:
• To play with dolls
• To like fairy tales
• To wear pink
• To watch The Brady Bunch
• To re-read the Little House books when I was in 7th grade
And so I did these things in secret. I “put on” being a tomboy instead.
Even as I write this, I am cringing. I don’t want anyone to know some of my true likes and dislikes. But one of my favorite parts of Gretchen Rubin’s wonderful Happiness Project is her First Commandment (to “Be Gretchen.”) This reminds me of the Hindu observation that God dwells within us as us. Those quirks we can’t stand about ourselves––they are divinely wrought. And our work is not to eradicate them but to learn to love them.
The older I get, the more permission I give myself to love what I really love. Our twenties are a time when we start to put down the masks and stop trying on different personae. By the time you hit thirty, you should be well on your way in a lifelong game of Hot/Cold (“Warmer….warmer…hot! Hot! Hot! You’ve found it!”).
“Why try to be a Pekingese if you are a Greyhound?” Listen to the still small voice within. Get to know it. Take it out on dates. Write to it. Talk to it, but also listen. See if it has any better ideas. Some people have an Inner Child. (More on this coming up.) In addition to my Inner Child, I seem to have been gifted with an Inner Sneering Older Brother, whom I probably acquired from reading too much Creem Magazine when I was a teen. Some of my work today involves standing up to that Inner Sneering Older Brother (ISOB) and singing, “I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow!” or some similar drippy 80s ballad. (ISOBs hate 80s ballads, 100% of the time.)
Now is the time to do something wild and crazy. Join the Peace Corps, Teach for America, or teach English abroad. Move to New York City or Los Angeles and live the life of a starving artist. Move to Bhutan and become a monk or nun. Go to Europe and be the founder of a political movement. Start a rock band like I did and travel around the country. Or, if you know you are going to end up being an artist, take a few years to do something totally different. (One of my friends from college became a cop. He’s now a writer. What amazing material he got during those years!) You will never be this unencumbered and free again! And your back will never enjoy sleeping on other people’s floors as much as it does now! Seize your moment!
This of course assumes you have your college loan situation under control. Mindful of paying off the bills, do so—in the most adventurous way possible within your comfort zone. And use your weekends for exploration. Take a weekend to be alone. Go on a Vision Quest. In Native American tradition, youths are sent away with no food (usually) to spend a period of time communing with their spirit guide. At the end of this period, they come back to the tribe clear on what direction their future will take.
Can you find a way to do something similar? I am only asking because, adult though (I think) I am, I wish I could say that I have done a Vision Quest. Everything about it terrifies me: the wilderness, the fasting, the insects, the boredom. That’s why I think it might be necessary. Next edition, I hope to report back.
One more thing about my crazy vision quest idea: it is worth noting that in every ancient tradition on every continent the young males went through some kind of initiation rite (the young females did not because they were usually impregnated at that point and/or breastfeeding, and believe me, motherhood is a pretty thorough initiation rite in and of itself). The point is, people have known for millennia the necessity of taking time apart to know oneself so that one can find one’s place in the community, make choices that are true and right and not end up like Zelig, the famous Woody Allen character who, chameleon-like, became whoever the people he encountered wanted him to be. Too many of us fail to buck peer pressure even when we’re well beyond Junior High. “Know thyself” is an ongoing project; the work of a lifetime.
To buy the book, go here! Sale this week: ebook=$2.99!
Also, which cover do you like most? This?