“Insist on yourself; never imitate. Every great person is unique.”
Good advice from Ralph Waldo Emerson, who also acknowledged that the task is a challenging one. We know it, too. It is easy to conform to the world’s opinion and it is easy to indulge our own unexamined certainties. But great are those who in the midst of the crowd keep with equanimity and responsibility the independence of their own contemplation.
So, how do we insist on being ourselves? Indeed, how do we become ourselves in a world that is often resistant to us having our way with it?
Yes, each of us feels unique because no one else really knows what it is like to be us. But we feel unique, too, because our sense of ourselves is up-close, private and convincing — a visceral certainty that feels legitimate, right and true. Involved with our self-consciousness (and our stories attached to it), it becomes who we are, the ground zero we want to preserve and protect.
But truth be told, if this self-description of who we are — our inwardness — does not match who we are in action, we’re apt to find ourselves in social and competitive arenas where we’re not a good fit.
Our private sense of ourselves may not be a good match for roughshod and intimidating social forces — what Emerson referred to as the world’s opinion — or it may inadvertently hide from us our creative powers. In either case, if we are in over our heads or if we’ve underestimated our resourceful and creative juices, odds are we’ll be frustrated or bored and certainly miserable.
This is why Socrates said more than 2500 years ago that the unexamined life was not worth living. He meant that we’ll be forever discontent, that is, never fulfilled, satisfied and equanimous, if we don’t investigate, articulate and reconcile the struggle between the natural force that we are with what the world wants us to do. Truly, in a world that is constantly trying to have its way with us, to be ourselves — a force to be reckoned with — is a great accomplishment.
There is something very poignant, appealing and useful about living the examined life. Educated by our investigation and no longer obliviously controlled by an unthinking conformity, we contemplate, say and enact by what measure we will know ourselves and be known.
No longer defined or compromised by a mismatch of intention and reality or trapped by the notion of an impersonal fate that precludes creativity, responsibility and freedom, we can and do insist on ourselves.
Indeed, this is why we are students of autonomy and life. Our study of autonomy and life — the autonomy of our subjective experience of life — is our means to authority, to presence, to our claim of authenticity and legitimacy.
We find dignity, spontaneity and joy as we shape our inwardness, our communications and our actions to meet the conscionable character (complex as it is) of staying true to ourselves as a force of nature and a custodian of our civilization.
Arnold Siegel is the founder of Autonomy and Life and the leader of its Retreat Workshops and Advanced Classes. Visit autonomyandlife.com for more information.