The Self We Want to Be True To

The line that made literary history comes in Act I, Scene 3:

To thine own self, Polonius tells his son, be true.

People who claim they don’t know a word of Hamlet know these words. They’re on mugs in museum gift shops, posters in middle school classrooms, on forearms and wrists in dark tattoo ink.

Yet despite the ubiquity of these six words, we’re offered little guidance on how we find the self to be true to.

So here’s one entry point I’ve come to appreciate: we begin to find ourselves by finding what matters to us.

Take out a pen and paper, brew a mug of something warm, sit down in a comfy spot, and write out the things that are important to us.

Social justice. Living near the mountains. Showing up for our friends. Seven hours of sleep. Honesty, compassion, playfulness, composting. Drawing, cooking, belly laughing every day. Whatever it is, put it down there. If it matters to us, it counts.

This collection of things - which can shift and change over time - starts to flesh out our self. These things are the means by which our self is expressed in the world.

And there’s a sense of urgency in articulating what matters to us. A day may come when we’re sitting across the table from someone who could change our life, be it with money, power, prestige. It’s our ticket to the big leagues! It all seems so great! Except for that tickle in our gut.

That tickle, more often than not, is the very self we’re to be true to. If we haven’t identified what matters to us - the constituent parts that make up our self - the glow and shine of what we’re being offered can override it. And we become true to money, power, prestige, or other false idols.

The world throws a lot our way that can separate us from our selves. The tyranny of should and supposed to, the lure of wealth and fame, the pressure of what those around us are doing. We can live true to so many things, but not ourselves.

But if we start with what matters to us, if we put that on the front burner of our lives, we may be able to rise to Polonius’ charge and honor that tickle in our gut that’s pushing us in the direction of our selves.

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