29 Mar

To Thine Own Self

The First Madness of Ophelia

Read this for me, will you?

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.
–William Shakespeare, Hamlet

What does it mean?

A call to be your true, “authentic” self?
A realization that who you really are and the roles you play are sometimes (often) at odds?
A reminder that you’re only whoever you are in that moment?

Or maybe something more bittersweet: that you, alone, are all you have?

One of the most wonderful things about words — or any form of art, really — is that we find in them what we want to see. (Perhaps that’s what ultimately separates art from science, my other favorite topic, where what we want to see has no bearing at all.)

In Hamlet, those lines are spoken by a rather farcical character (Polonius) as the denouement to a list of idioms and truisms serving as advice. You’ve heard plenty of the other lines before, I’m sure (“Neither a borrower nor lender be,” “Give every man thine ear, but few thine voice,” etc.), but “to thine own self be true” tends to be the phrase people remember. And reinterpret.

We can’t know, really, what Shakespeare intended for us to hear. None of us were alive at the time. None of us were in his head. Plenty of scholars have debated its meaning — and plenty of folks have adopted it as a mantra or justification of behaviors, both good and bad.

But here’s what I see when I read it:

This above all:
to thine own self be truthful.

In other words: To yourself, be honest.

It’s easy to deceive. We all know that. But what we don’t realize is that, often, the easiest person to deceive is ourselves.

It’s particularly easy when everyone around us, loaded with judgment, is happy to tell you their version of right and wrong — as if that’s ever anything but contextual. If we’re not clear on who we are and what we stand for, it’s easy to deceive ourselves into thinking that a path, set and directed by others, is the “right” one for us. That we can’t do it, or we’re not worth it, or we don’t deserve it. That our own needs and wants are “rightly” subsumed to those of others. Or, more selfishly, theirs are subsumed to ours.

But I don’t see life as either / or. To me, it’s “Yes, and….”

Which means that understanding context, and particularly where we stand in the midst of that context, is all-important when working to quiet our unquiet minds.

And that’s why that phrase speaks to me: The only context that never changes is us. The only constant, as inconstant and ever-changing as we are, is us.

We are the only throughline in our lives.

And if we’re not honest with ourselves — about who we are, what we want, and why — then we’re incapable of finding the balance between all of that and the world around us, and everyone else whose lives touch ours. We’re incapable of knowing what drives the next step, or what drove us where we are in the first place.

We’re incapable of being true to anything, least of all ourselves.

No honesty, no information. No information, no knowledge. No knowledge, no power.

But maybe you see something different.

Tell me?

Image credit: Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The First Madness of Ophelia, 1868


  • http://martijnlinssen.com Martijn Linssen

    Nice thoughts, thank you

    Which Self is it really? Jesus told us to love our neighbours like ourselves, and I’m afraid we’ve exactly done that – wrong self there in most cases

    Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj said: in order to know who you are, you must first find out who you are not – meaning debunking those what you call roles you play

    So, how to find your real Self? I did it his way, worked for me. Don Miguel Ruiz in his Four Agreements has a very contemporary and simple way to explain how you drag an edifice of thoughts, morals, judgments and opinions along with you all your life, unknowingly

    On that last bit: I can say I have no knowledge, really. I have no clue what this is for and why or what when and where. I simply observe and participate, still get dragged along of course but at least recognise that fairly quickly – not always in time

    The absence of that Knowledge is my power. I control my life, my thoughts, my feelings. Not whatever and whoever happens to me, but how I perceive that

    To me, Hamlet resembles the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas: http://www.martijnlinssen.com/p/gospel-of-thomas.html – you might like some of that too

    Thanks, and thanks to Tom Webster for getting me here

    • Tamsen

      Part of the inspiration for this post came from a sermon written and delivered by a mentor of mine when he was an Episcopal priest, long before I knew him. The topic of his sermon, “Trusting the Truth,” invoked Ayn Rand (and a passage from The Virtue of Selfishness), praising her for articulating that the truest meaning of “Judge not, lest ye be judged” is, perhaps, “Judge, and be prepared to judge.”

      Anyone who knows me well is likely quite puzzled by the fact that some of this is rooted in biblical analysis, given my (let’s call it) a-religious perspective on life, but to me it shows that there are some philosophical questions that take hold of us all, and to which we continue to strive for answers.

      Clearly there are no single answers to any of this, which is part of what I find so interesting. I’m particularly intrigued with your comment about “absence of knowledge” being your power, as I’ll happily (if somewhat ruefully) admit that I tend to overthink things. A lot of my thinking, paradoxically, is around how to not think quite so much, and just experience life as it comes.

  • http://honeybeeconsulting.com Melissa Case

    How I feel about these words is … complicated. At one point in my life, my viewpoint was more traditional: that if I caved to the beliefs/wants of others and, in the process, silenced my own, I was being untrue to myself. I have looked at them, thinking, “YES. I am the only one on whom I can truly depend. I am all I’ve got.” Now? I’m not sure. I’m not going to be *overly* philosophical about it, but think that my view is more hopeful. Because I have gone through things that have made me learn much about myself. Tomorrow? We’ll see. Thanks, Tamsen. You always get me thinking.

    • Tamsen

      Melissa, you were kind enough to be one of the people with whom I worked through a lot of these ideas, and for that I’m very grateful. It’s an incredibly complicated topic, which I’m sure is why it took me several days and several attempts to get a version of this post I liked enough to publish.

      Part of the trickiness is actually how many topics are wrapped up in the question: truth (what it means, whether universal truths exist or not, whose truth matters, etc.), judgment (why, whose matters, does it matter, etc.), and knowledge (what that means, when does it get in the way, when does it move things forward, etc.). And believe me, this post spawned about three others while I worked through it — and yet I think I’ve only just begun to understand my own thinking on it all.

      So, while I’m glad I’ve got you thinking, know that I’m still deeply in the process of myself. Thanks for being there with me.

  • http://www.gamechangers.com Bonifer

    I can see you’ve had some improvisation experience, Tamsen, so you might know a famous saying from improv theater that Mick Napier cites in his book: ‘Take care of yourself first.’ This aligns nicely with your notion of being true to one’s character, of playing whatever scene or role we find ourselves in through our honest response to that scene. We get at our truths through character. I’m with you and W. Shakespeare in that regard.

    Where I disconnect is when you imply that our completeness depends an understanding of ‘what drives the next step.’ I really don’t think we have to understand in the moment what does drive the next step, the way an actor would, let’ s say, seek motivation in the script. The temptation–and the promise of countless therapists and self-help gurus–is that ‘understanding oneself’ is the signpost up ahead, that this self-awareness is what creates our focus, and keeps us on our intended path. This, I believe, is a misguided notion. The self is a breeding ground for ego, and we know where that goes (note to non improvisers: leave your ego out of it). See, WE are NOT the only throughline in our lives. The most honest throughline lives outside the boundaries of anyone’s personal cartography. In improvisation, we give it a name: The game. As improvisers, our focus is not on understanding ourselves, we (want to) walk onstage with the consciousness of newborns. We come at the game as innocents, and discover ourselves in the playing of it. It is through playing the game that we come to understand our authentic selves, and our relationships to one another. Also, I think it’s a rut in the path to equate knowledge with power. On this, I agree with Martijn–a state of ‘no knowledge’ is a more productive place. If we’ve lived, and if we’ve paid attention, you have knowledge and I have knowledge. Let’s not hit each other over the head with who knows what. That’s what people who seek ‘power’ do. It doesn’t matter whether we equate power with knowledge, or with money, or guns, or boats, or beauty, or morality. Whatever it is, we hit each other over the head with it until we have worked out who has more ‘power.’ Let’s instead agree to ‘know nothing’ until we can put our knowledge to use exploring some kind of problem worth solving (i.e. playing a productive game). And having taken on the problem we can then reflect on how true to ourselves, and to one another, we have been.

    Great post. Thought provoking and relevant. And I love that you call yourself a Cartographer. Cartography in the networked world is definitely a problem worth exploring. Thank you.

    • Tamsen

      Mike, I don’t mean — at all — to imply that completeness depends on understanding the next step, or what drives it. So often understanding “Why?” is what Chip and Dan Heath (in their book Switch) term, “true, but useless” information. It may help explain how you got where you are, but it isn’t predictive, nor should it be, of what the next step is.

      So, do I understand your point correctly? That the throughline, in your eyes, is not our own path, but how that path relates to the world around us? If so, I’m in complete agreement, but I’d love to hear more from you on that point.

      And yes, I do equate knowledge with power, but not in the traditional sense. Knowledge, to me, is an essential ingredient in our power to change. It’s not, in that sense, used as any kind of currency at all, nor as a basis for establishing superiority, or lack thereof, with anyone else. It’s simply a deeper understanding of what our terrain looks like, and what the likeliest paths of success are through it.

      I love the experiential nature of gaining knowledge that you talk about — knowing comes from doing, not from thinking, a fact that many miss.

  • http://www.brandsavant.com Tom Webster

    I remember when you first mentioned on Twitter that you were thinking about what this saying means today, and whether that meaning differed from its original intent. It was a great question (which I expect, McMahon) because I didn’t have an easy answer, and actually mining for the answer produced some conflict in my own thinking.

    My original thought was that this saying somehow meant that your actions should be congruent with your values – that there is some core “self” that serves as a filter – would my core self do this? Think that? This mode of thinking would ostensibly serve as a guide for future decision making by drawing a line, or planting a flag – “Ideal” Tom wouldn’t do this, so I am not going to do this. You get the idea. I not have way with words.

    The trouble with that construct is that we all play different roles, as you say. There’s my role as an employee, as a writer, a father, a husband, etc. What I might see as inescapably correct in one role, might be ruinously wrong in another. How can one be true to oneself when I can’t get my selves to agree what the “truth” ought to be?

    So, I’m a clumsy philosopher, I admit. When I read your thoughts here, though (which I know you’ve been mulling over for some time) they really cut through the fog of my own thinking, and this has become my favorite post of yours to date. What I got from this is actually a very Buddhist way of thinking, and one I quite like. Frankly, it’s one I’m ashamed didn’t come to me naturally, given my own way of looking at the universe.

    It turns out that my various roles aren’t in concert – in fact, they often do fight with each other. What I might want to do as a creative person, for example, might be in direct opposition to my role as an employee, or a husband. When you judge these various roles, you feel guilty about one, or neglectful of another. When you treat all of these conflicting ideals as if they are just information, however, you can – finally – be honest with yourself, and non-judgmental about your choices. In other words, I shouldn’t feel bad that one side of me wants to do one thing, while the other knows the “right” thing to do. I should simply observe, explore and acknowledge all of those feelings fully, understand their true root causes, make my choice, and move on.

    Long comment, but it boils down to this – every time I tell myself “I’d like to do THIS, but I should do THAT,” I’m going to think about this post. To me, this post isn’t telling me that I should do the “THIS” because my heart tells me to, it’s telling me to explore why I think I’d like to do “THIS,” and also why I think I should do “THAT,” question those assumptions as much as necessary, and then make a choice, but not a judgment.

    Not sure that made sense, but it was honest, anyway.

    • Tamsen

      As I said to Melissa, the creation of this post spawned about three others, still sitting in draft form. One of them, perhaps unsurprisingly, is about that very idea of letting feelings be. They are what they are, and not deserving of judgment — a concept pretty hard for “thinkers” like me to deal with.

      And you know, I think, my rather strong opinions about the word “should.” It’s only purpose in this world, in my opinion, is to show us when our own set of values is at odds with the outside world’s. That’s also not a case for judgment, but simply an opportunity to gather more information.

      (See? You’ve taught me well.)

  • http://martijnlinssen.com Martijn Linssen


    I’m almost extremely anti-religion, that is against the institutionalisation of it as in e.g. the Catholic Church – but the Gospel of Thomas introduced me to an entirely different, Buddhist-like Jesus and I still like that image very much: he talks about the inner Saviour, not the outer one

    He’s a spiritual leader there, criticising priests, pharisees and people for blindly following religious habits

    My “absence of knowledge” means the voices in my head got less and are gone even, if you like to know my spiritual story then there’s an About on my blog – it’s a long one, especially the conclusion (http://www.martijnlinssen.com/p/what-i-learned.html) but that last bit is about how I stopped thinking – which wasn’t a goal but a consequence