Thursday, May 15, 2014

Do Not “Just Be Yourself”

A popular and almost cliché admonition is to “just be yourself”. The admonition stems from the observation that many people are obviously disingenuous in their social interactions. We run into a salesperson who smiles and uses ploys to get us to buy something we don’t want or need. We may meet a politician who we know is just pressing flesh and flashing a polished smile to get our vote. We meet an individual from the wealthy side of town who we know is just being cordial and hopes to get away from the riff-raff and back out to the golf course or whatever other thing wealthy people do all the time. Or perhaps they are being nice to hide the fact that they have some nefarious intent in mind, like Mr. Potter from A Wonderful Life. Those sorts of encounters leave a bad taste in our mouth. It’s easy to conclude that disingenuous people either don’t like people “like the rest of us” or that they are out to get us somehow.

So if we are counseling someone who wants to make a good impression on someone else, we might say to that person, “Just be yourself.” The idea is that the person we are counseling is really a good person and if that person doesn’t try so hard to be liked, his or her natural personality will be winsome on its own merits. If that person tries to be disingenuous then other people will pick up on it and be turned off by it.

There’s a flaw in this reasoning. Now it makes sense to a degree. After all, most people in our circle of friends come off as genuinely decent people… to us. But few of us are truly what we seem. If you have children, you know the importance of discipline. If you look at Internet forums or comments on YouTube or controversial blogs or news articles, you will be treated to a spectacle of human depravity. The effect of absentee conversations between strangers tends to lower the social expectations that make us civil people. Reading the comments on YouTube, for example, is akin to reading the old bathroom wall. Most of the comments are nothing more than vile graffiti. But what is in the well of the heart of an Internet user comes up in the bucket of the keyboard. Sometimes I just want to be snarky and hammer back with a sarcastic, “Don’t hold back. Just be yourself. Tell us how you really feel.” People are not basically good.

Neither are all people overly winsome. In fact, some people are socially awkward if not just plain creepy. What about people with mental disabilities or conditions like autism? Would they be more winsome if they were themselves?

And what is the purpose of school? We go to school because we are not satisfied with who we are as a reflection of our level of education. We desire to change in a beneficial way. And indeed acquiring knowledge affords us the capacity to increase our wisdom or status. Now it’s not a bad thing to be ignorant, but it’s a better thing to be knowledgeable and even better to be wise. We don’t make the leap without submitting to a regime of education.

Who we are is a result of situations both evil and benign. Most often, we need to change and continue to change in order to grow as an individual. That means we need the discipline of education and the discipline of civil discourse. Therefore, discipline yourself and seek to be disciplined by those who have become what you hope to become.

Also, understand that not being yourself and following the old adage to “be yourself” in the way it is intended are both moral admonitions. Do not be disingenuous so that you might unfairly benefit from your relationship to others, but present yourself appropriately that others might benefit most from their relationship with you.

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