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CULTURE

Doing you

It would be a real tragedy to look back, at the end of your life, and discover that it was never really yours.

You do you. I first heard this phrase during a conversation with a friend, over a topic I have now forgotten, about two years ago. Short and rather shallow-sounding, it is certainly a cliché, which means it is easy to misuse. Yet it has become my favourite way of playfully exhorting people I am familiar with to be unafraid to act out their idiosyncrasies.

So what, in Gandalf’s big white beard, does it really mean to do you? I have been thinking a lot about this lately. I feel that, a lot of the time, we don’t do ourselves. We do other people. We live as if we were other people, because they expect us to live that way. You need only look, and you will see people like this everywhere. Maybe you are one of them. I, for one, do not entirely recuse myself from this sorry lot.

It is a way of living defined primarily by fear. Fear of speaking out while being abused because we do not want to lose face. Fear of taking on big projects at work because we don’t want to jeopardise our position. Fear of standing out because we do not want to be taken for a fool. Fear of holding an independent political opinion because our community doesn’t take kindly to it. Fear of following our passions because the rest of the world tells us we should do something else. Fear of living where we want because the woke guys are in another place.

I do not underestimate the effort it would take to buck the trend. There are powerful social and psychological forces pushing us to conform or die (figuratively or, sometimes, literally). The group doesn’t like it when we stick our necks out too far. We make it uncomfortable and weak when we do that. I am sure there are very strong reasons for this. If it wasn’t useful, society would have died by now.

However, by living this way, we end up walking on eggshells, hidden in the shadows, while our lives roll on outside our control. Even when we do things that should be commendable in themselves, like getting a job or entering an intimate relationship, we are still toeing the line. The project of our lives is not our own. We submissively act out a script written by others.

Yet we all know, deep inside, that this isn’t what we are built for. By nature, we humans are oriented to meaning, which we can only attain by willingly taking on the burden of our lives, rather than living as if the burden does not matter. We are inherently uncomfortable in living lives that are not our own, because there is no meaning to be found there.

As a famous philosopher once said, an unexamined life is not worth living. The worthlessness of such a life is not just a rational construct. We experience it at all levels of our being. Intellectually, we recognise that our lives are a fraud and repress our deepest aspirations. Psychologically, we bear the brunt of a false existence through stress and depression. Physiologically, we subject our bodies to unjustified wear and tear.

To come out, we must question why we do the things we do. And once you discover that you are living to a script, you are immediately faced with two main choices. You may choose to continue acting out the script or to stop.

Considered purely and within similar levels of analysis, these choices seem to me to be mutually exclusive. The nuances of life, however, may mean mixing elements of both in each decisive instance. It is the reason for our choice, rather than the choice itself, that will determine its usefulness to our quest for meaning.

On the one hand, you may choose to continue with the script for either of two broad reasons. Either you are afraid of the chaos you would land into if you jump out, or you believe that staying is the right thing to do and are willing to bear the cost of doing so.

The first reason would be a callous capitulation to external pressure, and we know where it goes. The second reason constitutes an acceptance of responsibility for the burden of being, to use a phrase from Jordan Peterson, and it gives meaning to the drudgery of staying the course.

This is the choice of a husband who decides to keep the job he doesn’t like because the economy is tough and he has to take care of his ailing wife and school-going children. It is the choice of the physician who discovers, while working in a community ravaged by an epidemic, that he would be more fulfilled by a career as a competitive swimmer, but decides to stay and help the community. It is noble in every way.

Alternatively, you may choose to stop, either out of a dolt-headed anarchic rebelliousness, or out of the knowledge that the script is not written for someone with your set of qualities, and that you wish to revise it, or throw it out altogether in favour of an entirely new one. The first reason, anarchy, would most likely lead to disillusionment because, hey, the world will not always reconfigure itself around your whims.

The second reason, the desire to change the script, is another acceptance of responsibility. In this case, the contention is over which script we ought to live by, rather than over the necessity of a script for a meaningful life. We do not naively march out into the world and demand that it accommodate our irrational idiosyncrasies. Rather, we accept the immense load of building a whole new script with a place for our idiosyncrasies in it.

This is the choice of the career artist and the true entrepreneur. It is the choice of the straight-A student who decides to study literature in university because he wants to be a writer, rather than drag himself through six years of medical school in obeisance to the expectation that every straight-A student should become a doctor. It, also, is noble in every way.

Whatever path you choose, the most important consideration should be that you are able to justify your reason, first of all to yourself, and ultimately to whatever your highest values are. You have to make this choice every day, and reaffirm it whenever you realise that you have lost track of it.

I think it would be a real tragedy to look back, at the end of your life, and discover that it was never really yours. This is not about legacy. It is about a peaceful conscience.

I don’t know if you agree with my take on this issue. It doesn’t matter though. My only hope is that I have convinced you, if you needed convincing, to go out there and do you.

Feature image: Photo by Milivoj Kuhar on Unsplash.

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