Years ago, at a time when I felt trapped by circumstance, when the way forward was anything but clear, a wise friend asked me this: How seriously can you take yourself? What would it look like to take yourself one hundred percent seriously?
There’s a sort of superstition that if something comes up three times in a row it has special significance. In the last week, three different times with three different people, I felt moved to share that question, which has been a kind of guiding star in my life: deep, catalytic, generative.
The first time, I was talking with someone who works with teenagers and young adults who are so often pressured not to go toward the future that impels them, a journey fueled by curiosity and desire, but to take a path of self-forgetting and self-suppression that some figure of authority urges on them in the name of security. The second time it was a person at the other end of life, retired from work obligations, deeply bored, meaning leaching away each day, with nothing stopping him from embracing life more fully but his own belief in his limitations. The third time it was someone like myself who spends a lot of time thinking, reading, and talking about how to give coherence and power to the vast but inchoate opposition to the establishment’s current project of turning the U.S. into Corporation Nation. She was stopped from sharing her ideas in a more public way by the voice in her head that asks, “Who do you think you are to say what the next social evolution should be?”
Actually, now that I think about it, there were four times. The fourth was an artist who understands that culture is the crucible in which a sustainable world is forged, and who comprehends the importance of the public interest in art. But he’s embarrassed to say so for fear of ridicule, so he keeps mouthing empty platitudes instead.
When I was first asked to take myself seriously, my response was defensive. After all, I’m often accused of taking myself too seriously, of claiming the right to speak out as if it were my entitlement, of investing too much energy in my passions. “What do you mean,” I asked, “how seriously can I take myself? You want me to take myself more seriously than this?”
But as my friend explained more, I understood what he was asking. There is a powerful and pervasive temptation to identify with the world as it is. We are expected to take into ourselves the tacit assumptions and agreements that sustain an order which is in many ways absurd. We are expected to treat that order as normal, even natural, and in some sense right and proper. We are expected to learn our place and to follow the path that has been laid before us. If there is conflict between our own perspective and this received version of reality, we are expected to to adapt to absurdity rather than ignore or demolish it.
How seriously can you take yourself? Taking yourself one hundred percent seriously means investing in a process of self-interrogation that reveals your deepest truths, what matters most, your heart’s desires. Taking yourself one hundred percent seriously means releasing your identification with the absurd world because it is blocking your view of possibility, of how things could be. It means freeing your mind to see much more of what is really present, rather than whatever others say you should see.
Taking yourself seriously has to be its own reward. I mean that in two senses. It is indeed rewarding: there’s a delicious sense of congruence in showing up as your true self; life flows, even when it has to flow around obstacles, and that fluency feels good. But you must also prepare to be satisfied with that experiential reward, because there’s no guarantee the world will reward you in other ways for stepping forward with your full capacities engaged. Indeed, the response is just as likely to be alienation, ridicule, and hostility, especially if taking yourself seriously entails loud and persistent questioning of our adjustment to absurdity. All you can do is give people the opportunity to hear your truth; nothing guarantees that everyone will accept that opportunity; nothing guarantees that some people won’t hate you for it.
The trick is always to remember who you are, to not let the defenders of absurdity confuse you or pull you off course, to not be controlled by their responses. It is a hard trick to master. No one gets it right all the time. Life happens: things push on old sore places, and being human, we react. Momentarily, at least, we are pulled back into the old world, the one that told us to shrink and obey.
When that happens to me, these questions help me to extricate myself again: How seriously can you take yourself? What would it look like to take yourself one hundred percent seriously? Try it in the mirror. Try asking and writing down whatever comes, as many times as it takes to run out of things to write. So far as I am concerned, every student should be given the opportunity and support to pursue this self-interrogation before making any major life-choices. So far as I am concerned, every activist—everyone who is worried about the state of democracy whether or not that has led to activism—should take on this question as deep personal practice.
I have my anxieties and susceptibilities, to be sure. I can get isolated. I can hear a very old voice telling me I want too much and indeed, I am too much. I can stumble into the old world and start to believe that there is no escape. But beyond all of these is my terror of a wasted life, which to me is the refusal to live into one’s full capacity because other people might disapprove, or laugh at you, or like you less. I remind myself of who I am and what I know, I remind myself to take myself seriously, and that pulls me out. When something comes up three times in a row, it has significance. Perhaps it will matter to you too.
Days, up and down they come
Like rain on a conga drum
Forget most, remember some
But don’t turn none away.
Everything is not enough
And nothin’ is to much to bear.
Where you been is good and gone
All you keep is the getting there.
To live is to fly
Low and high,
So shake the dust off of your wings
And the sleep out of your eyes.