The better part of happiness is to wish to be what you are.
– Desiderius Erasmus
When I first read this quotation by the Dutch Renaissance humanist, Desiderius Erasmus, I wondered at whether happiness, as described by the quote, could be attainable in the modern world. I like this quote, because I believe the statement is true, but we live in a time when image is everything and we will go to great lengths to achieve the image we wish to create. Few of us seem satisfied with what we are. We have this desire to be a different or improved version of ourselves and the notion that that desire can be fulfilled is steadily marketed to us. We’re presented with images that have been manipulated to offer us a model of “perfection” to which we can aspire. We look to the use of cosmetics, hair coloring, and teeth whitening to look better. As a society, we’re obsessed with weight loss and anti-aging. And some of us rely on tanning, Botox, and cosmetic surgery to improve what we are. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that we should or shouldn’t do any of these things; that’s a personal choice, and maybe happiness can be found if doing any of these things can bring us a sense of security from having a positive self-concept. But I wonder that if we are so busy trying to change or “improve” ourselves, can we really wish to be what we are, let alone be satisfied with what we are? And so far I’ve only mentioned the physical aspects of our human experience. How do we feel about the intellectual and emotional aspects of our Self? The vast range of self help and self improvement products marketed to, and purchased by us may give some indication.
“…to wish to be what we are”. It is this part of the quote that provokes this vital question for me: What are we? It seems essential to know who we are if we believe there is any chance of wishing to be what we are. From the time we are born we are affected by the influences around us. We learn how to “be a boy” or “be a girl” early on. We learn our parents’ values and expectations, and how to please or to disappoint. We go to school and compare ourselves with our peers, learning how to fit in and what to do and not do. From the time we arrive on this planet, we grow older and learn so much, but we also lose our innocent nature and, along the way, our knowledge of who we are.
There are many times on our life journey when we seem to “wake up” and realize that we need to discover or rediscover our identity. We want to know who or what we are, because without knowing, we feel lost. Teens seek to create an identity that allows them autonomy. Young adults seek to establish an identity that will strengthen their role as adults in society. Middle-aged and older adults review their past and consider the kind of future they would like to pursue. As they become aware of the passing of time, they look back, often with regret, feeling they haven’t done well or accomplished enough. At each of these critical moments in life we wonder “Who am I, really?” And although we are the ones who know ourselves best, we find, often, that we haven’t the foggiest idea!
The thing is, so many of us are trying to find our identity from outside of ourselves. We look outward first, to observe and determine our place in the world and our relationship with it. We forget to look inwardly to see the person we entered into the world as. Instead, we get swept up in the need to fit in with popular image or thought, or with societal expectations. Or we bend to familial expectations or beliefs. The whole time, our true sense of self gets pushed down, forgotten, along with our knowledge of values and dreams that are meaningful to us. Instead of knowing who we are and acting on that knowledge in order to live a happy life, little by little we trade that knowledge for something that is not meaningful to us. The result is that we never feel quite satisfied with who we are or what we are doing. It is a sad way to live, feeling stuck in an identity that does not honor one’s true Self.
Getting back to Erasmus’ quote, the key, I believe, is to know oneself first and then to genuinely value one’s true Self. Sometimes I wonder, if we could see our Self as others see us, would we see with kinder eyes? Would we like the person we see? Or, if we could meet the child we used to be, would it change the way we see our Self now?
This reminds me of Disney’s The Kid (2000), in which Bruce Willis plays a successful, highly cynical “image consultant” whose personal life is unhappy. In a mysterious turn of events, he meets the child he used to be and receives the opportunity to see himself from a different perspective. While the movie is the stuff of fantasy, the story it tells reminds me that who and what we are is a multi-layered being who has developed gradually over time. As we grow, we find that time and memory have a way of allowing us to remember select things and to forget many others. Getting to the core of who or what we are requires peeling back the layers. If you’ve ever peeled an onion or an artichoke, you know that the outer layers are tough, but the inner core is tender. The same is true with our Self. We protect it under a tough outer layer while keeping the best part, the one that is genuine, suppressed deep inside. When we reveal that part to ourselves, we can appreciate the beauty of who we are – like the innocent newborn baby we once were.
I do agree with Erasmus’ idea about happiness and I do believe it is attainable, if we look for what we are inside of us and recognize that what we are is precious. No matter what happens in life, that precious Self is always with us. When we find it, value it, and share it with others, we are happy. And when we are happy, we don’t feel the need to change what we are. Maybe we even appreciate how special our unique Self really is. 🙂