Magazine | August 12, 2019, Issue

Be Yourself, the Screen Commanded


Here is a statement both weird and true: Over the past few years, I have produced a bumper crop of deep thoughts while at the dentist. This is not due to excessive anesthesia, smart alecks. It’s because my dentist’s office cleverly disguises itself as a day spa. 

Complete with heated, lavender-scented neck wraps, each dental chair also boasts a little screen that flashes a constant rotation of “inspirational” quotes. These bits of wisdom are paired with soothing New Age music and occasional bursts of slightly alarming whale calls. If you want to properly taste the zeitgeist, hasten yourself to one of these quote-spouting screens, which you can also find in corporate elevators, certain taxis, or any other place where people are temporarily trapped. 

My last chatty screen go-round was particularly telling: Bombarding me along with the wise words of Gandhi and Teddy Roosevelt and “Macho Man” Randy Savage were quotes that relentlessly instructed me to be myself, no matter what. Somewhat hilariously, the main reason that I must insist upon going my way or the highway — at least as far as I could discern from the dictum-spouting screen — is that everyone else is doing it, too. 

Behold the ever-growing garden of inspirational maxims ordering us all to be ourselves! They’re taking over coffee mugs, T-shirts, and the entire insanity-laden galaxy that is the Internet. Here’s an old favorite from Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself: Everyone else is already taken.” Here’s Lady Gaga, chiming in: “Don’t you ever let a soul in the world tell you that you can’t be exactly who you are.” Next, there’s Robert Browning, kicking it old school: “Best be yourself, imperial, plain, and true.” Not to be outdone, Taylor Swift ups the ante: “If they don’t like you for being yourself, be yourself even more.” 

But wait. What if — and I know this is a long shot, because I’m such a flawless person, born without a trace of error or original sin — I’m occasionally being a jerk? What if I consistently refuse to take accountability for my actions or care about anyone but myself? 

Even worse, what if I blame it all on my roots when I show up in boots and ruin your black-tie affair? What if I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die? What if I’m the dirty, mangy dog that named you Sue? Moreover, what if you’re a copyright lawyer reading this right now, and you’re also being yourself, and as such you’re thinking I should immediately credit those three previous lines to Garth Brooks, Johnny Cash, and Johnny Cash/Shel Silverstein, respectively? (I most assuredly do!) 

If we lived in a more repressive society, perhaps these constant, broken-record exhortations to “be yourself, no matter what!” might make sense. But come on, folks. In our strange land, finding and declaring or inventing your own identity — and indeed, even your “own truth” — is king. We need no more reminders, really! The message has clearly sunk in. 

“Gone are the days when young generations inherited religions and occupations and life paths from their parents as if they were unalterable strands of DNA,” wrote Derek Thompson on The Atlantic’s website recently. “This is the age of DIY-everything, in which individuals are charged with the full-service construction of their careers, lives, faiths, and public identities. . . . All the forces of maximal freedom are also forces of anxiety, because anybody who feels obligated to select the ingredients of a perfect life from an infinite menu of options may feel lost in the infinitude.”

Thompson was talking about the horror show that is online dating, but the broader cultural implications are clear — and if we’re honest, a little bit terrifying. I don’t know about you, but I can string together countless examples of people who most assuredly should not be themselves. Jeffrey “Allegedly Ran a Sex-Predator Network on a Private Island with a Weird Temple That Looked Like an Egypt-Themed Casino, and Also Reportedly Had a Horrifying Panel Full of Fake Eyeballs on His Mansion Wall” Epstein, for one. Kim Jong-un, for two. The vast majority of two-year-olds, for three. 

Before you get mad about that last example, be honest: Have you hung out with a toddler lately? Imagine the mass chaos that would erupt if we encouraged everyone from birth to just “be themselves!” Billions of Legos would soon be strewn throughout our national parks, rendering the hiking trails into hostile, impassable wastelands. Hordes of innocent-eyed young people would wander the streets, nonchalantly eating every piece of pre-chewed gum they just happened to find on the sidewalk. Thanks to a massive lack of dental conscientiousness, the nation’s tooth-to-finger ratio would plummet precipitously. Simply being potty-trained would probably get you into Harvard. 

Human beings, in short, need some level of instruction and training. Healthy human interaction, meanwhile, depends upon gives and takes paired with mutual respect and consideration. When “being yourself” involves indulging your worst instincts, it might be time to reevaluate your ship’s proverbial course. Seriously, this shouldn’t be that hard! 

Lest you despair, I’ve sighted a few rays of hope, at least in the world of kitschy T-shirts. Here’s one I’ve seen making the rounds: “Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.” Becoming a reclusive billionaire vigilante crime fighter with washboard abs and an underground lair overseen by an unfailingly polite father-figure butler might be a bit unrealistic, but I like the aspirational, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps spirit. Also, we can at least try for the washboard abs. 

But there’s another T-shirt I’ve seen that gets straight to the point, albeit sometimes with meaner, unprintable words: “Always be yourself. Unless you’re a jerk. Then, be someone else.” 

Beautiful! Marvelous! Right on! Whether we’re talking about politics, sports, or life in general, is there any better advice than this? I sincerely look forward to this new maxim’s appearance on the next chatty, quote-spouting screen I see. Until then — and hey, it might be a while — we can all spread the word. 

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