The most useless piece of advice anyone can ever give another person is to “be yourself”. Be yourself. Just… Be… Yourself. This is bullshit of the highest order. I can’t think of a single function in life where just being yourself is appropriate. Someone once told me before a big job interview to relax and be myself. I told them that, all things being equal, the truest incarnation of myself would be frolicking nude in a vat of rum and Häagen-Dazs ice cream with The Saturdays with calypso and 80s rock bands blaring out on endless loops. When you boil it all down, that’s probably the closest I can come to self-actualisation.
My friend didn’t want me to be myself. My friend wanted me to lie. And why wouldn’t she? If everyone actually listened when people told them to just be themselves, society would crumble. Except maybe France. France might survive.
Truth is, 95 percent of every conversation I have is bullshit. I doubt you’re much different. From a staff meeting at work to conversations with a girlfriend to intellectual discourses on whether or not football should introduce goal-line technology, it’s all almost entirely bogus. This is not to say that I am constantly lying. I am not, or at least not at a blistering 95 percent clip. It’s just to say that human nature dictates that we keep most of what we’re really thinking to ourselves and limit our actions to what other people will find acceptable. My boss once mused aloud in a meeting, “What’s the world coming to?” The response that immediately came to mind was, “Internet porn, mostly!” but, of course, what I actually said, stifling a grin and shaking my head seriously, was “Hmmm. Tell me about it!” You see, every conversation has an agenda, whether it’s to get laid, to order a steak or just not to get fired. We are only talking to get us through the conversation so that we get can back to being lost inside our own head.
More accurately: We are talking so that people will see us the way we would like to be seen. That image above, the one with me in a rum-soaked ice cream bath with Frankie on one side, Molly on the other and Rochelle and Oona… well… as pleasurable as it might seem, that’s not the way I’d like to be known. Frankly, it might have been a mistake to even mention it. No, no, I’d much rather you see me as the chilled-out Londoner, the one who means well, the one who remembers your birthday, the one who jumps around all excited when he sees you, the one who wants you to remember him fondly… what a great guy, that David. I’m constantly playing the role of David, and depending on whom I’m talking to, the role is played by a different actor.
If I’m at work, I’m the quiet, affable hard-working gent just trying to do his job and be left alone. With a girlfriend, I’m the loyal, funny, sweet guy who wants her to be happy. With my male friends I’m just one of the lads, watching sports, downing shots, checking out the girls and making fun of everyone we know. With my parents I’m the stable kid they don’t have to worry about too much. Am I really all of those people? Absolutely. In sections, parts of my personality, I’m a segment here, a segment there. It’s not like I’m lying to them. I’m just giving them each a part that’s appropriate for the situation. You do the same thing. It’s like a bookshelf you prominently display in your flat; it’s not like you’ve actually read all those books. You just want people to see your books and think something about you without you telling them. Umberto Eco next to Bill Bryson… he’s so well read! I’m whatever I need to be at that moment. I’m whatever I want you to want me to be.
Stick with me here. You have to know what I’m talking about. Surely, the conversations you have with your parents are dramatically different than the ones you have with your significant other, just like those are different than the ones you have with your close friends, just like those are different than the ones you have with your work colleagues, and on and on. You’re shifting on the fly. You know when you get a phone call at work from someone who wants to talk about something personal and you’re not comfortable taking the call next to the nosey lady in Accounts? That’s two worlds colliding, right there. Which one is the real you? The easy answer is to say the personal one, but which role do you spend more hours a day playing? At what point does the performer become the individual? Does it even matter?
You know what we are? We’re Voltron. Anyone remember Voltron? You had five little robot dogs, or something, they were metal, that I remember, and you’d piece them all together to make one monstrous Super Voltron. The little pieces fit together, each part representing something small but vital. No. I don’t like the Voltron analogy, though it really was a great toy. How about those little Russian dolls, the one that have a one that fits in a bigger one, that fits in a bigger one, that fits in a bigger one? That’ll work. The smallest doll is the one who you are, and the rest are just the layers used to disguise that fact. But to any observer, the larger dolls are all there is to see. So isn’t that doll the real one? Does having something underneath that’s “real” but no one ever sees allow it to be “real”? Aren’t we just what people see?
I found out the other day, almost accidentally, that a good friend of mine has tried heroin. Now, I’m not being judgmental here; though heroin doesn’t necessarily seem like my cup of tea — what with the shitting yourself, tendency toward self-mutilation and willingness to suck a dog’s dick if it’ll lead to another hit — I’m not going to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong. (I once sucked down loads of alcohol at a medical students’ party then spun around in a circle until I was convinced I had calculated Pi using Roman numerals; I have lost all moral and intellectual high ground, I assure you.)
This is not the type of guy who has tried heroin. This is the type of guy who can name all 70 British Prime Ministers — there have been 70, right? — wears ties to work and is probably seen as legit middle management material at his nice City corporate complex. And he’s done heroin. I cannot square this with the person I know; I can’t even conjure a mental picture of him drinking rum or whiskey. (I try to imagine him with a tourniquet with Post-It notes on it in his briefcase, or producing an Excel document with different syringe classifications.) But he has. Does that mean the person I know is a fake? I would argue not. I would argue that he’s just as real as the one who did heroin; he’s real to me. I’m sure the people he did heroin with have never heard him defend Tory policy. I have. That’s as real as anything. That’s worse than doing heroin, actually.
But who is he to himself? Can he make peace with the disparity? Deep down, at the end of the day, when someone tells him to “be himself,” what does he think of? Does it make a difference?
I don’t think so. I think the public face we attach to ourselves is far more real than any layers or shading that we convince ourselves we have. So the part of David will be played today by the quirky, funny guy, until it’s the serious contemplative guy, until it’s the loving boyfriend guy, until it’s the quiet employee. We’ll be whatever makes it easier to get through the day, to make it to the next day, and to the next day. And during the night, in the quiet, we are alone with ourselves, wondering what role we play now. The prospect is so terrifying that Nature was merciful enough to require us to sleep.
If that’s not a persuasive definition of what it means to be alive, I’m not sure what is.