13 Mar Be alive: to yourself. (Or ‘Don’t try and wear someone else’s clothes’)
I spent a lot (or maybe that should be all) of my youth and twenties listening to other people. Good people. Wise people. People who had my best interests at heart and wished me well. I listened to a lot a very sage advise. I even implemented some of it.
But nothing is as exciting as listening to myself. My own voice. My own opinions. And learning to trust them.
There have been a number of occasions recently when I have ventured an opinion, or said “I just can’t get this thought out of my head” and rambled on about some subject or other, only to have whoever i was talking to respond with affirmation. Letting me know that they agreed, or felt challenged. They found some truth in what I was saying.
These have been thrilling moments of connection.
And not because it is about me, and I am always right, because crikey that couldn’t be further from the truth.
But because I have learnt, or I am learning, to listen to the voice within. Call it gut intuition. Call it the Holy Spirit.
It should be an easy thing; to hear myself, surely? I mean, I’m always here, right?
But, I have realised it is so easy not to value your own thoughts, your unique way of seeing and understanding the world.
I have been reading a bit recently about Montaigne, who was a guy who lived in the 16th Century and wrote a whole lot of essays, about all sorts of things. Many say he invented the essay form. “Essayer in French, means simply to try. To essay something is to test it or taste it, to give it a whirl.”* I like this idea. He wasn’t afraid of contradicting himself. He knew his mind was unruly and unpredictable. He set himself the challenge of observing himself. He constrained himself to thoroughly explore the machinations of his own mind. He saw the ugliness and the beauty, the order and the chaos. And it wasn’t all highfaluting philosophising, it was also intensely practical. His essays covered numerous topics, from ‘Of the subject of wearing clothes’ to ‘Of sadness and sorrow’ But the main question, the central idea explored in his essays was ‘How to Live’. Originally written in French this doesnt translate brilliantly. It was not a moral question of how you should live. He wanted to continually pumel and interrogate the idea of what it meant to really live. How to be alive. How to be human.
Time well spent.
wasted spent a lot of time asking myself how i should live: the moral question of responsibility and obligation. But to ask myself how to live?, how to be alive?, what it means to be human?, is altogether more invigorating, more thrilling. I don’t always like what I find, it isn’t all pretty. But I am attempting to discover the truth, and there is satisfaction in that, even in the mess.
I am compelled by the same urge as Montaigne. To know myself. To trust my mind and my heart. To hear the internal voice that rails against injustice. That leaps with joy. That is unsettled by one assertion and comforted by another.
And to ask, why?
What drives my emotions and my actions? Why do I find myself careering down along a train of thought, like a runaway train with no knowledge of my destination? And when I delve deeper to my motivations and impulses to find it is some selfish, or self-motivated response: to make myself more likeable, or to emotionally bolster myself with the failure of others, then to ask why, and where do these desires come from?
But before it is possible to do any of this, you have to value your own mind, your own self. You have to realise that your view on the world, shaped by your past, present and future longings, your background and your position, your knowledge and your suffering, is of immense value. You have to know that you are unique and that you are needed.
We need you.
You need me.
We need each other.
No one else can offer the contribution I was born to bring. The same is true for you.
But until you know who you are and begin the lifelong exploration of what drives you and what you have to offer, it is impossible to contribute anything useful.
You will be trying to wear someone else’s clothes. The garments might be smart and expensive, but if they are not yours you are at best trying to be someone else, and at worst you are a thief.
Wear your own self. It suits you best.
We can stuff ourselves with knowledge and other peoples’ opinions. We can read until the cows come home. We can ask advise and hear wisdom from all corners. But this is worthless if you do not know yourself, if you do not take the time to explore how the small still voice inside is responding
Socrates said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”
And whilst ‘not worth living’ may seem a little harsh, I think I have begun to see what he meant.
I am more that just a glass to reflect the views of others. I am more than a robot to carry out the tasks that society at large tells me I need to fulfil to be deemed a success. I am more than a cog in a wheel, and a worker at the forge.
And so are you.
So figure it out, who are you?
Listen to the nudge of your conscience, and then ask ,why?
Read widely and discuss voraciously and then sit quietly and let your mind unravel your thoughts.
In the words of Rita Watson, Lauren Hill’s character in Sister Act 2 (one of my more high-brow references)
“If you want to be somebody, if you want to go somewhere, you better wake up and pay attention”
And I am not talking about knuckling down at school, as Rita is urged to in the film. I am talking about paying attention to yourself. To what stirs your soul. To what makes your heart sing. To why and how you grieve. To what you love. To (in the words of Dr Cornel West*) joy and sorrow, agony and anguish, life and death.
to be continued…
* From the brilliant book about Montaigne’s life, How To Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer, by Sarah Bakewell.
** Watch a brilliant talk that Dr Cornel West gave at Sheffield Students Union here in which he talks about the examined life and what it means to human, by way of Socrates and Beyonce. Thanks to Esther Wilson for the heads up.