While sitting in prison, Oscar Wilde wrote that instead of the Delphic saying of Apollo—Know yourself—he preferred the philosophy of Jesus—Be yourself. Well, it isn’t easy to be yourself in today’s world. Whenever I speak to psychiatrists or social workers or nurses or doctors and lay out a deep, life-long approach to healing, they remind me that they are limited by the requirements of managed care. Teachers complain that they have to give standardized tests and teach what they are told to teach. Nurses receive scripts to use when they speak to doctors. My daughter tells me that in college, if you want to be successful, you have to tell the professors what they want to hear.
There must be a strong anxiety behind this need for standardization and the suppression of the individual. Someone might get the wrong idea or technique. People may make up all kinds of things for themselves. If there are no standards, how do we know that our methods are effective? Standardization goes along with quantification. Let’s count the number of people who get jobs after attending a certain school. These are all expressions of anxiety.
All of this fretting seems to be about certainty, knowing that what we’re doing is valuable. We don’t trust ourselves, so we look for quantified proof. John Keats, who gave up a career in medicine for poetry, famously recommended a solution to this problem, negative capability: when a person “is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” How can you be yourself without being able to tolerate uncertainty?
My stepson Abe has been leading a team in designing and building a solar house at Middlebury College in Vermont. I’m astonished and proud of his achievement and his idea: He wanted a livable, beautiful human habitat, not just a technological experiment. The photos here that I snapped last week give you a glimpse of this house. I’d love for you to hear Abe talk about the uncertainties and doubts that went into this very personal project.
Let’s have some conversation about being yourself in today’s world. What helps? What gets in the way?