To Thine Own Self Be True

Comments on another blog considered the partial line from Hamlet, “to thine own self be true.”  In the context of the larger speech/poem from which it is drawn, it bears a remarkable kinship with selections from biblical proverbs and psalms.  Those who commented on the line, taken by itself, seemed to imply that within each of us there is a certain true self that is a self of integrity and inherent goodness, and that being true to that self is a defense against the falsehood and hypocrisy that surround us.  There seemed to be other implications in those comments.  That true self lives deep and must be discerned by honest introspection.  The self that appears on the surface is often a false self of accommodation to “the slings and arrows of outrageous” conditions around us (sorry about that Wil).

I wonder.  I wonder if there are not among us more than a few who, digging deep into their deepest self, find that whatever is there is not very admirable, or, perhaps, find nothing at all.  I wonder if our surface self is, in fact, very much a part of our real and true self, just as much as whatever may lie deep.  I wonder if a thief is being true to his own self by stealing (Shakespeare suggested that the French elite might be especially gifted that way).  Luther and Calvin seemed to feel that, surface or deep, all was corrupt.  Or, as I like to remind my Presbyterian friends, they belong to the church of the utterly depraved, which is a joke that doesn’t always go over well.

One comment reflected on institutional Christianity as a religion of condemnation that probably needs to be avoided if one has any hope of living joyfully into one’s own true self.  Elsewhere, another blogger cited editorial opinion that the major product of American evangelicalism is atheism.

Having considered all that, I am reminded that Jesus engaged with people as they were in the conditions of their lives as they presented themselves.  The gospel record suggests that he took in the whole person, deep and shallow, and treated them with respect.  Stories of healing were not just about bleeding or blindness, leprosy or lameness.  They were about wholeness, and not just the integrative wholeness of Jung, but of physical, emotional, spiritual and social wholeness in intimate communion with God.

It is just exactly this that suggests to me that whatever our true self might be, in Christ it can experience a transformation so incredible that nothing is impossible.  My public self, my private self, my secret self, my self unknown to me, all is made new and whole, a new creation.  Speaking only for myself, that transformation is a slow one with plenty of missteps along the way, but the way, however painful at times, is one of great joy. 

I’ll close with this.  During Lent, our tradition of Morning Prayer calls for a recitation of the Prayer of Manasseh several times each week.  Manasseh was the worst of the worst kings of Judah.  There was nothing cruel, evil or sinful in which he did not immerse himself.  Legend has it that, late in life, he repented and lived the short time he had left as a holy man.  His prayer of repentance is recorded in the books of the Apocrypha, and we use it as a reminder that as unworthy as we (I) may be, God’s abundant mercy will forgive us and restore us to newness of life.


6 thoughts on “To Thine Own Self Be True”

  1. I\’ve always found it more helpful to talk about myself in terms of doing rather than being. It\’s so easy to use adjectives: \”I\’m a kind person\” or \”I\’m intelligent.\” But whenever I\’m mean or say something stupid, then it\’s so easy to think that I only ACT kind/intelligent and that my innermost self is mean and stupid. It\’s almost an invitation to failure, too. But when I see things in terms of doing, I can change my behavior. I can say honestly and truthfully \”I\’m caring about this person\” or \”I made an insightful observation\” or \”I said something hurtful\” or the like. It\’s much more correct to say that (well, ignoring the fact that what we think is kind/mean is a bit subjective at times) and it always invites me to try it differently next time if I didn\’t like what I did. It pulls me out of the condemnation of self and helps me to correct my behavior. It calls me to turn again to God for the help to be a different person by doing that which is good, just, and loving.When it comes to my \’true self\’ I think of it in terms of God\’s actions: creating, sustaining, and loving me.

  2. That\’s a wonderfully hopeful paragraph you wrote about the transformation of our whole selves. I need to carry those words around with me for awhile and try to envision the possibility of a total transformation of my incredibly lazy self.

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