”I want,” declares the young person, “to be myself!” And one smiles and answers: “There is nothing to stop you.” Yet then there follows a qualm, a certain misgiving – this should be true, but is it? And in the clear gaze meeting one’s own, is there a touch of wonder? – “If it’s so easy, what happened to you, then?” The young are puzzled by our conformities; as they show, they fail to see reason for them. Confidently flying their own flags, they suspect us of having lowered ours. How is it, they ask, that people tend to become so all-of-a-pattern as they grow older – and, still more, seem content to let this happen? We could tell them that life as the years go on becomes less straightforward than it seemed at the start; constantly it is subject to pulls and pressures. True. Yet that question youth raises is not lost on us; it disturbs, haunts us more than our children know. For is it not one we have asked ourselves?
So many of our conformities are skin-deep only; they cost us nothing and matter little. A general wish for smooth-runningness accounts for them; seldom are ethics or loyalties at stake. When talk, for instance, takes a turn towards subjects as to which you or I lack any particular interest or conviction, it seems at once simpler and more civil to fall in with opinions expressed by others. Some of our agreements are due to laziness, but others to actual diffidence or humility – “Who am I to know?” And there are pacts we make with the rest of society: on the whole we dress, behave, run our homes, and conduct our outside existences in the accepted manner – to do otherwise could involve us in needless trouble, or cause us to rile or perplex our neighbours. Overmarked self-assertion could, we see, border on self-advertisement. We break with convention, depart from custom, only for some authoritative reason. Altruism, too, can make for conformity – have I the right to expand, to express myself at the expense (as it could be) of those around me?
So far, so good. But where should this stop?
We slip into many acceptances unwittingly: do we know when we begin to begin to give way too much? Danger signals, some
HOW TO BE YOURSELF – BUT NOT ECCENTRIC
infinitesimal, others sufficient to cause us shock, show when individuality is threatened. Such, for one, is the moment when we find ourselves no longer making decisions – no longer comparing values, weighing alternatives. Choice is not choice when it fails to be quite our own, calling upon taste, will, and indeed temperament. And yet another warning is boredom – we are bored when our existence grows automatic; when impulse, enterprise, the stimu- lating element of uncertainty no longer play even a little part in it. Or, our likes and dislikes lose their spontaneity; even our pleasures lessen in flavour – where are the incentives which moved us once? We feel brought to a standstill. Then it is that, within us, something makes heard a half-stifled cry: “Let me live, let me be, before it is too late!”
This cry of the self is not egotism. Let us be clear as to the immense distinction between egotism and identity; otherwise, in our efforts to curb the one we may end by extinguishing the other. The ego by nature tends, as we realise, to be grasping, aggressive, and antisocial; whereas identity, on the other hand, puts forth but one deep insistent quiet demand – for outlet. Outlet means expression, and that tends to enrich rather than harm society. In the best of the world we live in, civilisation, art, we see the splendid achievements of self-expression; countless creative identities, back through time, have greatened our concept of humanity. Not all of us are artists or thinkers, statesmen or pioneers; we are none the less each born with one priceless attribute – we are each unique. In each of us therefore resides the power to leave our own individual marks on life. Small as these may be, they are never trifling: they count.
What they count for, we should know – for how quick and happy are our reactions to the “expressive” in other people! The most fleeting evidences remain memorable – the face glowing with character on the crowded street; the room unalike to a thousand more through the atmosphere given it by its owner; unusual breath from a perfume, flash from a colour, inspiration in the pinning-on of a jewel; the fresh and lively turn of a phrase in talk: these affect us like miniature glints of genius. And what else are they? … In love and friendship, the predominant moments are those when those
we care for are “most themselves”; equally we, when we can be natural, cause a release all round us of personality – feelings are unsealed, thoughts find words, affection and gaiety well up. To be treasured in memory are such days or hours – how sad, by contrast, seem our constraints, our half-wary shynesses, our small-talk made trite by conventionality! Why are we not ourselves, we wonder, all of the time – or at least, more of it?
Possibly, we don’t give ourselves enough chances. There is the matter, for one thing, of opportunities: some occasions, like some persons, ask something special of us, offer us special scope – those are the ones not to let slip by. Life’s unexpected small invitations, are we too routine-bound to take them up? The impromptu party, the sudden purchase, the unplanned journey: who knows what might not have flowered out of them! And again, many of us have hidden interests, likings, capacities to be amused or charmed, which we disavow because of their seeming “childishness” – exactly these could go to the making of our own individual inner world. Furthermore, there can be good in daydreaming. We are warned against what can be its insidious dangers – gone too far, it could weaken our hold on fact. But in happy rovings of fancy, I see no harm – I maintain that in our middle years many of us do not daydream enough. Endless, for one thing, are the delights of building castles in the air; if they never become reality, we have still enjoyed them! The “I” in us, eager and many-sided, is capable of living more lives than one – imagination, often, can supply them. I have a friend, a contented woman, who remarked to me as we passed a neighbouring home: “Mrs. So-and-So may not know it, but for years I have been living in her house!” Having fallen in love with the place, knowing full well she had never a hope of owning it, my friend had found the solution: she had moved in and was serenely dwelling there – in fancy.
Let us want what we do want, not what we feel we ought to! Our genuine wishes, choices, and tastes express us, even apart from their realisation – though, let us realise them if we can. Choice – or call it selection, discrimination – is the most eloquent of all (which is why I call it a bad day when that power in us threatens to atrophy).
People, Places, Things
HOW TO BE YOURSELF – BUT NOT ECCENTRIC
In dress, in home decoration, shapes, textures, colours, the “I” finds a concrete vocabulary. Fashion, today, no longer is a dictator, rather a would-be ally of the identity; it deals no longer in “musts” but in possibilities. There are an infinity of ways of avoiding the mass- produced look. Even what may seem to be universals, the grey suit or the black dress, subtly are invitations to personality; everything depends on the way of wearing them, the unique touches, the language of the accessories. Anything more out-of-the-way, more striking, issues a more uncompromising challenge; there are times when one should take this up. How we appear is a great part of what we are, and the same holds good in the making of our surroundings – grouping of objects, lighting, and use of colour. It is up to us to arrive at our own harmonies; there is not an expert in the world who can more than suggest how this may be done.
Decisions we make when we go shopping have their psycho- logical equivalents all the way. At every turn, the question is put to us: “Do you wish this? – is this what you really like, love, require, prefer to other things?” None of us desires to be the prey, entirely, of our instincts and impulses; nevertheless do we not do wrong if we endlessly disregard and thwart them? We ought, I’m sure, to analyse the reasons for our conformities. Convention is a good guide, but a deadening ruler. It may be that we restrict ourselves out of over-deference to unreal standards: for instance, I have known people in whom a genuine urge towards hospitality (and, almost certainly, a potential gift for it) was balked by the fear that they could not offer enough. That what counts in entertaining is warmth and grace, that thought taken achieves more than money spent, were truths they had not the courage to act on. Immense is the value of spontaneity – in a flower arrangement, in an impulsive visit, in a remark. Slight risks of oddness – do they matter so much? Even those who smile at them, they may well delight.
It is infinitely rewarding to be oneself. It is not easy. How much is involved in the undertaking, the confident young speaker has yet to know. Ego, crashing head-on against authority, is miles from identity seeking its gentler way out. Aggressive, offensive eccen- tricity is its own warning; only slowly, by experiment, do we learn
the quiet art of the personal in behaviour. Born to our indi- vidualities, as to destinies, we have in us the power to fulfil them – small or great, the means lie everywhere to our hands. What we are is, most of all, what we have to give.