'To thine own self be true,' revisited
The admonition in 'Hamlet' has new meaning for graduates and others.
Another graduation season has rolled around, and as I attend the graduations of friends and children of friends, or read about commencement addresses in the local papers, it seems that often the message is the same, variations on the theme: "Work hard and be like me."
Perhaps the great-granddaddy of them all was written 400 years ago in Shakespeare's "Hamlet." One of the characters, Polonius, has a long-winded farewell to his son, in which he summarizes, "To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man." It's good stuff, but not necessarily a gripping page turner.
But as I thought further about this recently, what rescues the speech from being just a list of platitudes is the beginning – the admonishment to be true to one's own self. I began to question what was meant by the phrase, "thine own self." What if that self were psychopathic, an alcoholic, a compulsive liar, or just a mediocre person? Surely that is not what we're supposed to be true to.
It occurred to me that the Bible might have guidance on the subject, and I found these words of Christ Jesus: "I can of mine own self do nothing: as I hear, I judge: and my judgment is just; because I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me" (John 5:30).
I was struck by this – the man who walked on water and raised the dead points to his heavenly Father, God, as the source of his power. Jesus saw his "selfhood" not as the origin of his creativity and authority, but as the means through which he did the will of his Father.
Being true to this understanding of selfhood is a wonderful lesson, not just for the graduate but also for those of us whose graduation days are behind us. It seems to me it's a good reference point for meeting those tasks of everyday life at home, at work, or in school. It frees us from egotism that might be in visible to us but irritating to others, and therefore a mysterious brake on our careers. This immolating, or sacrificing, of egoism and replacing it with a spiritually based selfhood is a step toward finding our true self as the beloved, individual reflection of God.
Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper, wrote in her major work, "Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures": "The calm, strong currents of true spirituality, the manifestations of which are health, purity, and self-immolation, must deepen human experience, until the beliefs of material existence are seen to be a bald imposition, and sin, disease, and death give everlasting place to the scientific demonstration of divine Spirit and to God's spiritual, perfect man" (p. 99).
Getting rid of the sense of separation between ourselves and God puts us in proper perspective as His image and likeness, expressing only God's perfect qualities in individual ways.
A few years ago I was asked to write the music for several songs in another of Shakespeare's plays. I began this task with ease, but I think I started to think of myself as pretty hot stuff, and the composition became more and more difficult. I felt my well of creativity was dry. Finally I realized I'd been ignoring God as my source.
Turning back to prayer, I found an outpouring of musical ideas. More important, it brought me a deepened experience, acknowledging God as the creative Mind.
This has been a major lesson for me, learning that being true to my highest selfhood means seeing God as the ever-present source of good. It has enhanced every job for me since then.
Trust in the Lord
with all thine heart;
and lean not
unto thine own understanding.
In all thy ways
and he shall direct thy paths.
Proverbs 3:5, 6