“Your only obligation in any lifetime is to be true to yourself.”
This is one of my favorite quotes, and a favorite author. I don’t agree with everything he says but I am unwavering in my belief that this quote sums up a concept we each must become intimately familiar with if we’re going to find happiness in life.
It may sound selfish at first, but I think that if we look more deeply, we’ll come to find it’s not selfish. It’s about being able to be ourselves, accepting who we are, celebrating it, and being accepted by others.Our world is filled with demands that run counter to allowing us to be ourselves. Just to list the ones that come to mind:
- Practicing a certain religion.
- Attending religious events.
- Dressing a certain way.
- NOT dressing a certain way.
- Maintaining a standard of living.
- Being a certain type of partner.
- Being straight.
- Not being straight.
- Being subservient to authority figures so we never question them.
- Behaving as an extrovert.
- Behaving as an introvert.
- Accepting social wrongs.
- Fighting against social wrongs.
- Having children.
- Getting married.
- Owning property.
- Putting your life on hold to take care of others.
- Listening only to music that people around you approve of.
- Having a certain career.
- Maintaining a certain income level.
- Having a certain type of car.
- Having career, family, money, etc to the point of “having it all.”
- Supporting certain political beliefs.
- (For Parents) Everything happens with children placed at the center of your life, your needs must never come first.
I’m sure everyone can come up with other things to add to the list.
It doesn’t really matter which item on the list we look at, or if we look at life in general. The reality most people will face at least once in their lives is that we are expected to subvert our “self” in ways that lead to losing a sense of self. This facet of society can be so damaging, even if none of the expectations placed on us are individually restrictive. It’s when the expectations start to shift us away from the course we know we’re meant for that it’s dangerous and we should recall the quote from Richard Bach.
The expectation that children should be responsible for the care of their aging parents is not, in and of itself, a dangerous expectation. However, if the parents suddenly have an expectation that their child will come running to the exclusion of their child’s commitments to their career, dreams, family, etc, then we’re looking at a problem.
It’s hard not to lose sight of ourselves in a world that places so many expectations on us. I think it’s why we have a mid-life crisis, honestly. We’ve spent decades taking care of things everyone else wanted. We become doctors when we wanted to be accountants or artists. We have families when we wanted to remain single and travel the world. We get locked into these lives that are expected of us, and like a rubber band, there’s only so far we can stretch before we have to snap back to our original shape or be broken.
I recognized this reality years ago. I saw that living a certain way was going to leave me feeling unfulfilled and that the day would come when I would turn on it all in order to save myself. So, I started working on making changes before things got that far. Some things had to wait. I had children who I had a responsibility to, and I couldn’t just up and wander off without recognizing that, or harming them. But I could make changes for myself to set things up for the future.
When the kids were old enough, I allowed myself time to take walks alone and lose myself in music. I allowed myself to do things I enjoyed while they were seeing their father. I defended the space and time I needed for self-care.
Here I am, at 48, and I haven’t had a mid-life crisis. I’ve had to course correct a few times, but only when I recognized the path I was on was not leading where I wanted to go. I have a few things I wish I’d known to do, but overall, I don’t have a long list of regrets. Things I’ve wanted to do, like traveling, aren’t done but they’re also not things I’m out of time TO do.
I’ve lived my life in an effort to be as true to myself as possible.Where I am isn’t where I thought I’d be, but I’m happy with my life. I credit this contentment to being true to myself.
How can you do it?
It’s easier than you might think. Make a quick mental list of things you’ve wanted to do for yourself, things you enjoy that you’ve been pressured to not include in your life. Delete anything harmful, like downing an entire bottle of wine every night or doing drugs. Now, pick one item in that list.
Do you really want to color your hair bright green but no one supports your desire? Maybe you love country music but everyone around you complains when you hear it. What if you want to create art or write but never seem to be allowed time to be creative – even up to the point of being told it would be a waste of time?
Perhaps you want to join a certain cause, be politically active, or be excused from having to attend a church that leaves you feeling spiritually dried up. Maybe you want to give up practicing law and pursue your actual dream job. Maybe you enjoy taking your parents to the grocery store and helping them keep up their house. Perhaps you even want to live with them so you can be there more often. Or, you might want to share the load with siblings, find someone to handle certain aspects of caring for them, and do less. You could even be staring down a wedding you feel you can’t back away from because everyone expects you to go through with it.
If anything you want isn’t something you can do today without having dire consequences, start by making a plan for how you’ll get to that goal. Begin the change.
If you aren’t true to who you are, individually, how can you be happy in your life? On top of that, how many people will you eventually hurt by following the path that is not led by being true to yourself?
To give a powerful example of how crushing social expectations can be, consider the way our society has treated homosexuality over the past 100 years. Can you imagine being gay or lesbian, and having to marry, have intercourse with someone you weren’t capable of attraction to, and staying married while being utterly unfulfilled and unable to embrace such an important part of who you are? Yet, there was a time when anyone who was not perfectly straight was told to do exactly that, and failing to do so was a horrible character flaw. Even now, in the US, there are segments of society who expect this.
It doesn’t matter if your idea of being true to yourself means that you stop shaving, dress up as fashionably as possible every day, volunteer in an animal shelter, or whatever else it is you need to live your life as yourself.
What matters is that you do it. We are here because the world needed us, each individual. If we aren’t true to ourselves, we’re failing our obligation to ourselves, others, and the world at large. So get out there, show yourself to the world, be yourself. Fulfill that primary responsibility and experience the happiness you can find in the world!