This quote from José Ortega y Gasset, at first blush, sounds plausible: heroes are good; wanting to be oneself is good. So just put them together.
This is bad logic, of course. But perhaps we can dig in and tease out some deeper meaning that is logically sound and worthwhile.
Before we get started, however, we need to dispense with a possible objection: Aren’t some bad people happy to be themselves? They aren’t heroes. I don’t think most bad people are happy to be themselves. Badness requires an evasion of one’s knowledge of what one believes to be good. People who evade reality do not want to be what they are.
However, we seem to be talking about bad people who have some kind of conscience (the thing that knows better). What about people who have no conscience, such as psychopaths? Well, I don’t think we should generalize from pathological cases. But at any rate, I would say that psychopaths don’t seem to enjoy being psychopaths much of the time. If what I’ve read is true, they are frequently filled with emptiness due to their inability to connect with others, and their frustration fuels their rage. They might not be psychologically able to conceive of being something other than what they are, but they clearly don’t want to be themselves in any affirmative sense.
From “When Your Child is a Psychopath” in The Atlantic.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get on with the main discussion.
“Wanting to be oneself” seems to have two possible meanings here, but I think one is just the more superficial version of the other. The superficial version is what people mean when they say, “Just be yourself.” In other words, don’t put on anything to please others.
The deeper meaning is that one actively desires to be what one is. This entails not putting anything on to please others, but more fundamentally, not putting anything on to please oneself. I would venture to guess that the latter is as common as the former.
Many people want to be something other than what they are. They are trying to escape themselves, or at least, escape looking hard at themselves. Think of people who are “trying to be” something. I know a woman, a good woman, who is frequently “trying to be” black. She swaggers and uses foul language and says things like “Once you go black, you never go back.” (I am white and have a black wife and my acquaintance once said this to me. I told her it was insulting.) She says she throws around the n-word at home with her spouse (but not at work).
Of course, she has a stereotyped and degraded idea of blackness, but the point is that she is not really black in this way at all. No one is. She is adopting a pseudo-self based on a sense of life. She does this unconsciously; she probably thinks this black self is her real self, or at least an important aspect of her real self. (In my book, I call this “Pretending.”) There are myriad examples of this phenomenon we could muster: Wanting to be cool, wanting to be a macho man, etc. etc. Obviously, if you want to be someone else, you don’t want to be yourself.
(Perhaps I sound a bit clinical discussing such people, but let me assure the reader that I am genuinely saddened by their actions and do not regard them as a moral failing, at least not most of the time.)
Other people, and I suspect this is the larger group, don’t want to be much of anything. They simply take everything for granted. Things are just “the way they are.” Such people accept their social roles without reflection. A lot of people who see themselves primarily as “Mom” or “Dad” are like this (I’m not trying to knock parenthood by saying this. It’s all a matter of how you define yourself.) An appalling number of people take things in life for granted. For example, why is there marriage? What does it imply? Should we go about it the way others go about it? These questions never occur to many people.
(As an aside, the same lack of questioning extends to other subjects, too. For example, many people never think about the reason for and nature of government. They just take society as a big family (family is a thing that is frequently taken for granted) and they just want to focus society’s power and resources piecemeal on their “commonsense” goals. [Commonsense includes a large element of taking things for granted alongside the more beneficial element of practicing logic in a non-theoretical way.] This mode of thinking was given intellectual support in the philosophy of pragmatism.)
Unfortunately, many of these people take themselves for granted as much as they do everything else. They cannot be said to want to be themselves, except maybe in the sense of being comfortable with their social role. The deeper issue never arises for them.
But even among people who don’t take themselves for granted, wanting to be oneself is a difficult proposition. I’m no psychologist, but I would hypothesize that many people try to be something they are not, because they think being what they really are would mean extinction. This fear can have many causes. Perhaps most commonly, or at least most tragically, this fear arises from the experience of not being loved or even given what one need to survive by one’s parents or other caregivers. Someone in this situation may have to choose between life and being oneself, and most children are naturally going to choose life. Such people may eventually become heroes in Ortega y Gasset’s sense, but unless and until they do, their heroism consists of surviving.
But even when the issue does not center in so direct a manner on one’s relationship with one’s caregivers, many people seem to fear that facing themselves as they are would mean extinction—in the form of meaninglessness (which is often experienced as chronic boredom). This is a big problem in modern capitalist society, which is very good at producing things and at offering meaning to people who like to produce things, but not always so good at motivating less creative people who are now freed from the problem of immediate survival. Such people often turn to distractions and disguises to avoid the banality of their own lives, and we get cool and vampire chic and head banging and hip hop style—or just obsessive identification with one’s local sports team. All of this is a way of avoiding meaninglessness.
So how should one overcome not wanting to be oneself? My answer is by being calm at the core. When I say “calm” I mean “present” and “non-reactive.” I don’t mean “passive” or low-energy, and I don’t mean living in the moment. Being oneself means owning the present, the past, and the future as an integrated person.
When I say that a hero is one who wants to be himself, I do not mean that one should try to become a hero or even to try to become one’s ideal, at least in the sense of a direct grab. That is Pretending. What I mean is that one should strip away all the falsehoods and distractions until one unburies the presence within. And perhaps that presence is nothing more than a spark, but it is there. Expose the spark, be the spark, let go of everything else.
At this point we reach a paradox: What happens next is simultaneously a making-something-happen and a letting-something-happen. You maintain your spark and then you let the world show you things. You choose let your self suffuse your mind, your body, and your world, and you let them pull you in. Your spark becomes a flame.
Speaking of my own case, I look at life as a process of exploration and reclamation. At times in my life I have stood in my despair as on a tiny island. The world looked like a desolate gray ocean and I felt like a castaway. People seemed like zombies. Culture seemed obsessed with idiocy and idiosyncrasy. But my island, no matter how small it was, was mine. I knew I wanted more. I left myself open to new things. Sometimes I would browse almost at random. I would find a new thing, and my island became larger. I pushed back the sea. I would jump off in new directions, and my island would become an archipelago—disconnected, but related. Liberated, I added more territory, and my archipelago would become a small continent.
All of this was guided by the tiny flame within me, the belief that there was beauty and fascination and logic out there in the world, if only I tried hard enough to find it. I believed it because I saw those things in myself. I saw light over the edge of the pit I was in and I crawled toward it. The self I wanted to be was Life.
I went through this process most notably with discovering literature, which when I was in my early twenties seemed like a vast wasteland. (I wrote an essay about my journey here.) I’ve gone through it with ideas, more of which in other essays. And I’ve also gone through it in my own soul. A lot of my exploration involved learning how to stop “trying to be” something or taking anything for granted, and I wrote about that kind of exploration in my essays “The Pretender” and “The Sleeper Awakes” in my book.
I’ve also gone through my reclamation with people, too, most of whom once seemed hostile to my values, or at least gray and desolate. Now I refuse to have my continent be blockaded by superficial barriers. That woman I mentioned who sometimes is trying to be black? She believes a lot of things I don’t agree with, but there is something special about her when she is not trying so hard, and I love her.
Heroism is a dubious concept: it carries with the baggage of rescuing people who should ideally rescue themselves and of seeking adulation. I believe in a greatness that is attainable by almost everyone.
If I am in some sense a hero, it is because I wanted to be the spark, which was my true self, and I fanned the spark until it became a flame. You can do that too.
If you liked this essay, you may also like my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life