If we cannot be ourselves, who can we be? 


Being true to ourselves is the most important attribute any of us can have. But what does that mean?  In her new book, ‘What should I believe?’, psychologist and writer, Dorothy Rowe, writes that being true to oneself is behaving in a way that is consistent with the core values and beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world in which we live.


What we believe in makes us who we are.  Our identity is nothing more than a composite of the meanings we ascribe to our lives.  These are generated by the sense we make of the things that happen to us; by the attitudes our parents instilled into us,   the influence of our teachers, our friends, our college, our job, the person we married and as we get older, our students, and our children.  These meanings are constantly being refined and remodelled.   It is written in The Talmud that … we do not see things as they are; we see them as we are.’  Our sense of being ourselves is no more than a fragile set of ideas, but this is our most important possession.     


Nothing in this world is absolute.  We might like to think it is, but it isn’t.  Nothing is real, only thinking makes it so. Our sense of reality is created by language, by the names we give to things, the meaning we ascribe to them.  There is no truth; just guesses and illusions that are supported by other people.  Our world is constructed not by fact but by fantasy; the stories we tell ourselves, what we believe in.  Science attempts to validate those beliefs, to see if predictions based on that belief prove to be right, but science depends on a set of rules that we invent and experiments and statistical analysis can be set up to provide the answer we want.


Dorothy Rowe compares the process of creating meaning, not to anything fixed or solid, but to something that is ever changing like a stream, and what we call our identity is like a whirlpool in that stream, a fluid entity, affected by everything that happen upstream, influenced by the geography of the land, but impossible to pick up or pin down.  Change the conditions of our life and our identity changes. Throw a rock in it and it and disappears only to reappear in a different form somewhere else. 


It can be very threatening to our identity when our whirlpool of meanings is  disrupted; if we do not get the promotion we expect, if we are betrayed or rejected by someone we love, if someone insults us, if we find we have made a serious error of judgement, if  we have to lie to protect ourselves or others.  Then our self confidence is damaged and in order to grow from the experience, we need to understand it and build in into the meaningful structure of our lives.    


If we cling defensively to a strict code of morality, then we can be shattered by circumstance.  Think of the episode in The Cruel Sea by Nicholas Montserrat, when the Captain of the corvette attacks the German U boat with depth charges when he knows that he will kill all the survivors from the ship it has suck.  He makes a decision to sacrifice the few to protect other ships that might be torpedoed.  But how can he live with himself?  I couldn’t!  Jack Hawkins achieved a masterful and gritty portrayal of a compassionate man, who is nevertheless strong enough to make the difficult decisions.  Is this the quality of leadership?  Are natural leaders imbued with a more flexible notion of morality;  an acceptance of their humanity. Crisis is unpredictable and there are situations where they must deceive, steal or kill in order to protect themselves or protect others. 


It’s all fair in war or in love.  Is that true?  No, it’s a convenient excuse.  The point is that love and war both present the individual with an unpredictable crisis, in which they are tested to find difficult solutions that they can live with. 


Falling in love forces us to collapse our moral code into that of the other.   It is an act of enormous faith or perhaps of desperate desire.  It exposes the core of what we believe in, bringing about a fundamental change in our being.  For many the risk of betrayal may be too great, not just a betrayal by the other or collapse of the illusion, but more seriously a fundamental disillusionment with oneself, a corruption of the soul.  So it is not so much a matter of whether you can believe in your lover but whether you can believe in the person you have become.       


If we can no longer live with ourselves, then we can feel ourselves falling apart, but what is actually falling apart is our ideas about ourselves, which cannot fit with the situation.  It can take great courage to accept that our world is not what we thought it was.  And it can take a lot of time and effort to re-adapt and change the way we think, the way we are. We either have to ride out the storm of uncertainty until we are able to construct another set of ideas we can live with or leave the situation that has become intolerable.    


Some may not manage it.  They become ill, but their illness is not caused by an infection in the body, but by a depletion of the spirit, the meaning of their lives.  They have lost the cognitive set of beliefs that sustains them as a person.  They can no longer live with themselves.  In some traditional (so called primitive) societies, those that have committed some sin against the social order, are identified, a hex is put on them, the bone is pointed and they can literally die of shame.


So many people struggle with the strain of an unhappy compromise.  Their life may not be what they want; they may not even know what they want, so they bind themselves with so many responsibilities and obligations that provide a kind of meaning but exhaust the spirit. 


So why can’t so many people be themselves?  Why do they condemn themselves to the unhappy life of an imposter?   Has something dreadful happened that has eroded their spirit and sapped their confidence?  Or were the seeds sown much earlier?   Have they been brought up by parents so self absorbed they couldn’t see their children for who they really were, merely as objects to own and control.  Or were their parents so fragile that their children had to suppress their own desires to care for them?   Our upbringing can create a prison, in which we incarcerate our desires for fear of displeasing others.    


Lacking confidence in ourselves means that we a frightened of being destroyed as a person. So we create defences. Pessimism is a defence against further disappointment and annihilation.  People who have been betrayed and abandoned protect themselves against the risk of it happening again and make a virtuous identity of their martyrdom.  Others defend against the fear of their own inferiority by working to gain a position of power and influence.  Writers, artists and composers use their art to defend against their fear of meaninglessness.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge talked a lot to keep the terror at bay.  


Fearful people can make it so difficult for themselves.  They can feel guilty about not achieving, frightened when they do.  They cannot enjoy their success; instead they punish themselves for their hubris.  They complain about the boredom of their jobs but cannot seize the opportunity to make things better. They fear the risk of commitment and so lead lives that are lonely. They don’t love themselves so they are suspicious when others love them.  They secretly wish their beloved would let them down, because that would relieve the tension of their own ambivalence. They are condemned to never ending struggle to prove themselves because if they stop, they are beset by feelings of guilt.  Extraverts are frightened of being alone.  Introverts scared of being overwhelmed.   Those who need to be needed and can only exist in the desire of others often live lives of quiet desperation.  If we decide to be something we are not, then we commit a sin against ourselves.  If we behave in a way that we cannot believe in, then we are guilty of murdering our soul. 


Dorothy Rowe suggests that too many people reject freedom because freedom means insecurity, openness to the unknown.  So they wall themselves in an impregnable fortress that shuts out the light and shields them from what they fear.  For some this fortification is constructed of walls of classism, racism, sexism, religion, nationalism and other forms of bigotry.  Their beliefs are a defence against worthlessness. They attack the non-believers, judge them, control them and pity them, yet it is the believers who are the ones who have the most doubts about their beliefs.  Religion can so often be used as a defence.  Our self righteousness is a delusion that elevates us at the expense of the rest of humanity. I would never do that.  I would never tell a lie. Pride and self righteousness can be dangerous.  Our prayer should be,  ‘Dear God. protect us from those with convictions’.  Fundamentalists have to kill those who do not believe the same thing.  Destroy my faith and you destroy me!  The false assumptions behind Tony Blair and George Bush’s crusade to Iraq diminished us all.              



But none of us can live without our myths.  Our myths sustain us against the essential meaninglessness of our lives.  Religion is popular because all religions promise to overcome death.  They create fantasies about part of us living forever.  While science imposes the unacceptable certainty of annihilation, religion remains a set of myths that allow us to live with uncertainty.  It is only by believing that our life has been satisfactory that we can face death with equanimity. The greatest misery,  Dorothy asserted,  is to see life without a purpose, a meaning.  Life must have a purpose or we might as well die.  Unable to live with the uncertainty of life, how can we live with the uncertainty of death.  If there were no death, there would be no need for a religion.



Our myths must not constrict us.  We might argue that a true spirituality is equated with a meaningful mythology based on a sense of belonging. It is about acceptance, integration, wholeness, being at peace with oneself.  Compassion, understanding and forgiveness strengthen us.  They allow us the flexibility to accept our essential humanity and be true to ourselves.