To Thine Own Self Be True

Synthesis the other day wrote:

“You can make aesthetic and critical judgments about politicians, current events, art, literature, and most everything else.

Why not people?

That’s the inevitable conclusion. If your life is a story, you can be judged. If it’s found to suck, well, let’s just say nobody will read your blog.”

I was so offended by that argument that, despite the fact I’ve been preoccupied with finishing up writing on Anne Sexton, the idea has been swirling in my head all week.

To complicate matters, this idea keeps bouncing off another current hot topic, self-esteem. And, of course, both of these made me recall Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.”

If thirty years of teaching high school taught me anything, it taught me not to trust group opinions. Popularity in and of itself is not a proof of worth. The most popular students in high school had nothing, except popularity, over students who are hardly noticed, or who were even made fun of. Another obvious example is the media. Is a popular movie written for teenage boys really better art than a less popular play written by Samuel Beckett? Popularity is not proof of much but popularity.

Perhaps the most annoying part of the argument, though, is the implication that other people have the right to judge you as a person on the basis of your blog. I doubt that anyone has the right, or the ability, to judge another person’s life, particularly based on something as superficial as a blog. Society as a group is no more capable of judging the worth of a particular individual then they are of resisting the pressures of the mass media that make their lives a living hell by convincing them that material possessions can somehow fill the void in their lives. Emerson isn’t far from right when he says, “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.”

Maybe self-esteem is important in our society because it allows us to make our own decisions, allows us to stand up to those who would make us conform to their standards and impose their ideas of right and wrong on us, whether those standards are truly applicable to our lives or not. Everyone, parents, teachers, friends, class mates, claims to know what is best for us, but it is an illusion. In the end, no one can live your life but you, and no one, no matter how many blogs you blog, truly knows what you feel inside.

Though I’m less than certain there is a clear connection between a lack of self esteem and a need for praise from others, a lack of self-esteem seems to make some people, at least, seek affirmation from others instead of trusting themselves. I suspect that people like Anne Sexton craved attention to fill a void in their lives. Their lack of self-esteem makes it necessary to seek outside confirmation that they are “okay,” even though they can never truly be okay until they themselves believe they are okay.

Increasingly in our society people need to feel “popular” to be happy. Some seem to even feel a need to attain their “15 minutes of fame.” They will do anything to be noticed, to be “somebody.” If they produce a blog and are desperate enough, their blog might very well become “popular,” or at least get an amazing number of hits. Does that mean that their life “doesn’t suck?” Does this kind of popularity have any meaning at all, except, perhaps, to confirm that an amazing number of people have bad taste?

On the other hand, another person might produce a web page that appeals to a limited audience. As a result, the page gets only a limited number of hits, but it draws the people the blogger was looking for. Does that mean that his life “sucks?” As far as I am concerned, if the person has produced the page he wants to produce, it doesn’t require a certain number of hits to validate the worth of that page. As Emerson says, “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.”

2 thoughts on “To Thine Own Self Be True”

  1. In today’s Des Moines Register, (Opinion Section), presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich was quoted as attributing the statement “To thine own self be true” to Emerson. I knew Shakespeare’s Polonius said that, but Emerson said similar things.

    Kucinich also mentioned Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality,” because, I think, his wife comes from the Lake District of England, where several poets, including Wordsworth, lived.


  2. I expect Kucinich knows better than most the price of being true to yourself. I’m sure his views, no matter how correct they might be, and I agree with most of them because I’m as radical as he is, have lost him the kind of popularity that would allow him to be elected President.

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