William Shakespeare designated a minor character in his play Hamlet to express and offer to us profound advice, something that is really an observation about the nature of the human animal. It rattles around in our minds, and probably has since time immemorial.
In Act 1, Scene 3, Polonius’s advice to his son, Laertes, is “This above all: 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 may be that many people do not think about it, but some of us – those with aspirations regarding the roles they hope to play in the lives they will lead – have this buzzing around in their conscious and subconscious minds. And it begs the question, who and what is that self?
Some of us, and certainly it was true in my case, concocted, in the days of our youth, fanciful tales of the derring-do we would accomplish in our lives. Aided and abetted by library readings that detailed the accomplishments of heroes in past times, I painted myself into the foreground of these scenarios. Along with this, necessarily, went standards of behaviour that demanded selflessness and virtue. I not only had to be brave and courageous, but I had to be honourable and generous. A hero could not be otherwise.
So, to be true to myself, there were rigid standards of behaviour to which I imagined I should live up. I am sure many of us have been subjected to entreaties from parents, other adults and teachers, as to standards of behaviours that were to be expected of us, and some of these were incorporated into what we wanted from ourselves.
No standards are applied as rigidly or as harshly as the ones we inflict on ourselves. Taking them into account in our private moments, we are aware of every one of our transgressions. Totting up the score, we make judgments all the time as to whether we are worthy of the self-respect we would like to possess. We dearly want to like ourselves if we can. We wrestle with our failings and remember most of them.
And we judge our accomplishments, too, of course. How close did we come to achieving those deeds of derring-do, however we define them, that we promised ourselves we would undertake? Are we on the way to being heroes in our own eyes? Or, at least, can we enjoy a satisfaction for our accomplishments, including meeting our standards of behaviour towards others? If we didn’t make it all the way, did we fight the good fight sufficiently to make us worthy of self-respect? After all, it is ourselves with whom we cannot escape living. How much self-destructive behaviour can be traced to remorse in this arena?
Where have you been in life, you dashing daredevils? What mountains did you climb? What goals did you set for yourself, to reach or exceed? Were they modest and did you achieve them to your satisfaction? Were they vainglorious and did you feel the bitterness of defeat? Was public attention your goal, for good or ill, or did you not need acclaim? Did you find satisfaction in the effort itself? Did you have to be satisfied with only partial accomplishments? Were you like me, who blundered around until the moment caught me, rather than seizing these moments?
If you are just starting out, you have all this to look forward to. Go forth, you heroes and heroines of endeavour!
Max Roytenberg is a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger. His book Hero in My Own Eyes: Tripping a Life Fantastic is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.