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Be Yourself

David Cowles

May 30, 2024

“It’s an odd idea, don’t you think? I need to make an effort to find out who I am and then more effort to be the self I’ve found myself to be?”

“Just be yourself!” Has anyone ever said that, or words to that effect, to you? How many million times! In the 1960’s, we were all on a trek to find ourselves. Now, we’re being told, everywhere we go by everyone we encounter, to be ourselves

It’s an odd idea, don’t you think? I need to make an effort to find out who I am and then more effort to be the self I’ve found myself to be? Say that 10 times after a few pops

“I’m finding myself,” I told my father, explaining why I was living in a garret apartment, working part-time, minimum wage jobs, after graduating from an Ivy League college. What was I really doing, I wonder.

Where is this elusive ‘self’, anyway? Across the sea, in the sky? Do I need to take drugs to find it? Or enter an ashram? Did I have it once and then lost it somewhere along the way? Or is it hidden at birth, like the afikomen at Passover, for us to seek and find later? 

What would it be like to ‘find’ myself, anyway? Would I (or someone) kill the fatted calf? Or would I even notice that I’d been found? How would life be different? And what exactly is it that’s been found? 

I am pure subject. I am the writer/director of my own play, the composer/conductor of my own symphony. My ‘self’, on the other hand, consists of the actors and musicians I’ve placed ‘under contract’. But my actors and musicians are not me. They did not write the play or compose the symphony. Theirs is not to understand, theirs is just to be the band.  

So let’s see, what have I been given to work with here? Fortunately, a lot’s been laid out in a simple, if elaborate, code called DNA. (it’s like the score…or the screenplay…for my life.) I am the product of a single DNA molecule and DNA never blinks; it does its thing, over and over and over again, until it doesn’t. Yes, I am that!

But the score is not the symphony nor the script. What happens once the ink is dry makes all the difference. Accordingly, my ‘self’ is also the product of my experiences and the process of my socialization. Memory, even simple conditioning, contributes to my ‘social DNA’ – that’s where I store values inculcated by my parents, information taught by my socializers, and expectations ingested from my culture.  

I wrote a sentence once. If I wrote it before 1950, it was mostly a reflection of the trauma we euphemistically call ‘childhood’; if I wrote it after 1950, it was a product of my race, my gender, my economic class, and my social status. Either way, according to Jacques Derrida, only 3% of what I write is actually written by me; the other 97% is written by others through me. We are all expert copyists in a vast medieval scriptorium. 

So what do I find when I find myself? Well, I find the experiences I remember, the responses I’ve reduced to reflexes, and the memes I’ve been taught by elders and peers. I also find traces of race, gender, fortune, and social status. In other words, I find the collective other; I find nothing I can reliably call me. This ‘self’ is really an anti-self. I am pure subject. The self I’ve found is pure object. 

To be myself is to heed society’s siren call, to give up my dreadful subjectivity for the safety of objectivity: a home with 4 walls, a more or less steady income, a daily routine, well defined social structures (“I’m your father!”), etc. 

Wally (Wallace Shawn) described what it’s like to be yourself in the cult classic, My Dinner with Andre: “I’m just trying to survive – you know? I mean, I’m trying to earn a living. I’m trying to pay my rent and my bills. I mean, I live my life…I have a list of errands and responsibilities that I keep in a notebook, and I enjoy going through my list and carrying out the responsibilities and doing the errands and then crossing them off the list.” 

One might accuse Wally of measuring out his ‘life in coffee spoons’ (Eliot), but Wally has ‘found himself’ and he is more than content just to ‘be himself’. He has willingly allowed his subjectivity to identify with his objectivity. 

Andre (Andre Gregory), on the other hand, is a classic ‘Rebel without a Cause’. His identity is iconoclasm and the first icon to go is Wally’s version of ‘self’:  

“We’re all bored. But has it ever occurred to you, Wally, that the process which creates this boredom…may very well be a self-perpetuating unconscious form of brainwashing created by a world totalitarian government…that somebody who’s bored is asleep? And somebody who’s asleep will not say no?”

If Wally is channeling Voltaire (“…we must tend our own garden”), Andre is channeling Sartre (“I am not what I am and I am what I am not”). If the fabric of the World is woven on a loom that shunts between stability and novelty, Wally opts for the former, Andre the latter.

Of course, IRL things are not this simple. No one entirely eschews objectivity, and no one can eliminate all traces of subjectivity. But here’s a clue: You’re never more subjective than you were at the moment of your birth and you’re never more objective than you’ll be at the ‘hour of your death’. 

Death is the final absorption of subjectivity into objectivity; with that in mind, you may wish to heed the advice of Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night! Rage, rage, against the dying of the light”… or not!



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