© DeAnna Alm, 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 14, 2010
In Act One, Scene Three of Shakespeare's Hamlet, Polonius sends his son off to university with these words, "This above all: To thine own self be true..." Good advice, right? We've all heard it before, in fact so often that it has become a cliche. And like so many cliches, it has become easy to say and to accept without really thinking about it. What does it really mean to be true to yourself? And how on earth are we supposed to do it?
So what does it mean to be true to yourself? Is it just an excuse for selfishness? After all, last Wednesday evening, if you had asked me what I really wanted to be doing at that particular moment, I would NOT have said, "I want to be hunched over my computer pounding out a sermon for Sunday." I might have said something like, "I want to be on the couch with a romance novel in one hand and a chocolate donut in the other!" Since I am here now, and not home pretending to be sick, you can see which choice I made.
Being true to yourself does not mean acquiescing to your every impulse. Just because you feel it, you want it, doesn't make it right. Most of us have met someone who has tried to excuse some egregious behavior by saying, "Oh, it's not you, it's me, babe." How comforting is that? And does anyone ever feel that such a statement excuses the behavior? If we use the idea of being true to ourselves as an excuse to avoid things that are difficult or unpleasant, then we are saying that our selves are defined solely by the search for pleasure. In addition, the way we choose to act is not only a product of our past, but also shapes who we become in the future. As Andre Berthiaume wrote, "We all wear masks, and the time comes when we cannot remove them without removing some of our own skin."
I'd like to share a short poem called Indwelling written by T.E. Brown in 1875.
If thou could'st empty all thyself of self,This poem has a more anthropomorphic God than I suspect most of us here are comfortable with, but it still contains an idea worth considering. We've heard in a previous sermon about living mindfully, and what a challenge it can be to do that. We are all so busy in our daily lives, it's easy to let head, heart and soul become preoccupied and to let ourselves fill up with the things of the moment, without considering the patterns we are setting for ourselves, those masks that we are allowing to adhere to our faces. Without introspection, it becomes an extraordinary challenge to find the time, the quiet, simply the motivation to "empty thyself of self," and then to observe and control what is allowed in to fill that space.
Like to a shell dishabited,
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf,
And say, 'This is not dead',
And fill thee with Himself instead.
But thou art all replete with very thou
And hast such shrewd activity,
That when He comes, He says, 'This is enow
Unto itself - 'twere better let it be,
It is so small and full, there is no room for me.'
How do we find our essential self and allow it expression? For some of us, the idea of following the lead of the spark of the divine within ourselves is a significant one. I know that I found Jeremy's sermon on process theology to be amazingly meaningful. The idea of God as a process, as the "holder of all possibilities" really rang true. Jeremy said, "[In process theology], we, the created, choose what becomes actual and what remains only a possibility." He defined God as "...the lure toward the most beautiful, life-affirming decision," the source of all possibilities from which we choose what becomes real. Upon hearing these words, I felt something fall into place, something which lends strength to that inner, best self to which I am trying to be true.
I think of being true to myself as being true to the person that I want to be, not necessarily the one that I AM at a particular moment. I don't want a philosophy that encourages me to be complacent (especially as that tends to be a fault of mine without any encouragement, thank you very much!) I want a guideline that encourages me to dig deeper, to root out my faults and encourage my virtues. I think that's the reason why many of us come to Mission Peak - we want to discover new ways to be our best selves, and then work on putting those ways into practice. And this is hard work, eased somewhat by doing it in community. I do most heartily believe that the search for truth and meaning is an individual one; but that search can be lonely and isolating before you realize that there are other people who are searching for something similar.
So one way to make sure that we are working toward being true to ourselves, rather than just pursuing selfish desires, is to redefine the "self" as that small spark of the divine in all of us. If that is too close to "God-talk" for some of us, then we can ask ourselves, "What kind of person do I want to be? What defines me? What inspires me to action? Am I making decisions that are mindful of the people and the world around me?" We have to discover the answer to these questions as we set our course through life. A friend of mine wrote in his blog, "...the self is not a thing to be worshipped, but rather a thing to be given." So in this process of self-discovery, we need to decide what we want to be able to give, and how we will make ourselves able to give more of it.
It's not easy. Jim Davis once wrote, "The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable." I don't always like looking deeply into myself. It's easy enough for me to avoid some of the big sins - I don't have the urge to murder or steal, and since George Clooney isn't married, I'm not guilty of coveting anybody's husband. But the small, petty sins that come to light - impatience, selfishness, laziness - those warty little suckers are no fun to admit to either. If I don't admit to them, though, and if I don't try to discover why I committed them in the first place, then what are my chances of improving myself? If my goal is to follow the lure toward the most beautiful, life-affirming actions, then I need to understand what it is that is pulling me in the opposite direction, and to discover what I might do to better fight that pull.
Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil, but I don't know if anyone has written about the attraction of complacency. It's easy, and it's oh so comfortable to fall into being complacent. I may know I'm not living my best possible life, but it's good enough. Who's got time to be introspective? I've got a family to care for, a boss to please, bills to pay, parents to worry about... If I'm not causing active harm to anyone around me, why push and stretch and try to improve? But somehow, in those quiet moments that come to us all, it feels like there is something missing. That inner, essential self is not being fed, and that starvation of the soul deprives not only ourselves, but the others with whom we might share it.
Some of our Unitarian Universalist hymns and words of inspiration mention that "still, small voice" inside us all. I think of this as the voice of our true selves, our best selves. It's easy to hear the voices that shout. "Procrastinate!" "Pretend you're busy - you don't really want to do that favor for her!" "Do a half-assed job - no one will notice and you really want to get out of here." "Don't volunteer - it's a lot of work and someone else will do it if I keep my head down." "Lie - it will make things easier for you, and who's it really going to hurt?" The shouting voices often come through loud and clear - we don't have to make space and time for them. And, of course, not all those shouting voices are internal. We are shouted at every day by the forces of commercialism, materialism, and by actual other people who want us to act in some certain way. If we are going to hear the still, small voice of our best selves, we have to make the effort to ignore that initial shouting. We don't have to pretend that those initial impulses don't exist - but we do need to make some space and silence to hear from our consciences, our better selves, the spirit of Life, God... The name of what we are listening for is far less important than the act of listening.
It is so much simpler to say, "Be true to yourself," than to actually do it. The impulses of the moment are often much clearer than the reasons why we give in to or resist those impulses. Taking the time to discover our essential selves, to know the values we want to express in our everyday lives, gives us a buffer against the forces that push us toward complacency and selfishness. So in closing I will say that Polonius's advice to his son was incomplete. I hope that this sermon will serve as a call to all of us to discover and refine our best selves, and to take action in the world in a way that expresses that essential spark, and causes it to shine like a lodestar, leading us into a brighter future.
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