This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell, my blessing season this in thee!
Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3, Shakespeare
Shakespeare said this the first time, and there has been much to be said for this since the era of Elizabeth I. To this day, it’s one of the wisest and most on-point quotes in the world – arguably, I’m sure – but in all actuality, there’s much to be said for the seemingly simple, and yet actually pretty damned difficult, task of being yourself.
As I’m diving right back into The Index Series, having just recently released my fifth installment, I have to stop and do a reassessment of the characters that I created. I first conceived this series, this project of my writing capacity, on a challenge in 2006. It’s almost been ten years since I began the writing, and didn’t start publishing until three years later, in 2009. It’s now 2015, I have five books released, two more waiting to be edited, one more waiting to be finished, a screenplay version of one book out, and the second one in progress. And these characters, though all products of my imagination and in part based on some very real people, have consistently been an exercise in both my knowledge of psychology and anthropology – because if I want to make them in any way believable, I actually have to know the wiring behind all of it – and an ongoing lesson in what it means to be human.
It may seem ironic, because the genre I write in is science fiction/fantasy. All about aliens, magic, other planets, so on and so forth – and yet, as un-human as my characters are, they are a study of the human condition. Every time I come up with a conflict to plunge them into, I have to gauge how they will react, and write it accordingly. I have to map every human reaction and emotion down the last little eyebrow-quirk that may indicate the person is not exactly thrilled with the situation at hand, and write it into the story.
And in thinking about the evolution of one of the characters I’m working on now, as part of the Origins arc, it’s a curious thing indeed. I already know, from the main body of the previous books, exactly what one of my supporting characters is like. Her ambitions, personality, so on and so forth. But now I’m writing her back story and how she came to be the way she is. And in that light, I got to thinking on the above Shakespearean quote.
So bear with me a minute while I wax philosophical.
When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
A loaded question, I know. But bear with me. You see your own face. You see your own eyes. You analyze yourself and you ask, “What does this person look like? Strong? Struggling? Something in between?” Do you see yourself as you are, or do you see the person whom you are expected to be?
Like it as not, humans are social animals. We work well in packs, in teams, we socialize, interact – this is what gives us a large part of our Sense of Self. We have friends, lovers, relationships, husbands, wives, parents, siblings, coworkers, bosses – people surround us. And what else does? Their thoughts. Their opinions. They may or may not voice them, but they are there.
Their opinions aren’t relevant. However, here’s the thing: when you try too hard to make yourself look like anything other than what you are, it’s pretty much a red flag in and of itself.
When you know how to read body language, you will know immediately, right away, when someone you’re talking to wants no part of the conversation. You will also know when someone’s not being genuine. Likewise, if you’re talking to someone you have little affection towards, there’s a pretty good chance the other person knows it. Same thing goes for when you’re trying to hide any part of who and what you are as a person. If it’s not out in the wash, it’s out in the rinse.
In other words, don’t concern yourself with how you’re perceived. You will be seen as the person that you are anyway, regardless. If you try too hard to put on a different face, you’ll only show your real self more prominently. So here’s a very simple rule:
Just be you.
Simple thing….just be you. Who likes you or doesn’t like you is only important if you’re working in entertainment or public relations – and even then, not really. But above all, it just doesn’t pay to be anyone but yourself, because, as my best friend says, if it doesn’t come out in the wash, it’ll come out in the rinse. If you alter any part of who you are as a person in order to fit with the expectations of the people around you, you’re already putting yourself in a bad position. Why? Because who you really are is bound to come out eventually.
So why put on the masks in the first place?
Easy answer: we all want to be accepted. It’s just how we, humans, are wired. No matter what and how we live, no matter how different we are, we want to have a group of people around us, where we can be ourselves.
But no one ever said that that’s an easy task. As we get older, we get a lot less susceptible to peer pressure. What upset us as younger adults doesn’t touch us some years later. The give-a-damn part of us hardens over as we grow older, and the older we get, the less we give a whit for what people think, but even though we do that, the words ‘be yourself’ have another two words that follow it, and those two words are know yourself.
It’s long been touted that knowing yourself is the ultimate form of aggression, and as I found, both in writing my books and in living my life, that is a very great truth. When you know the person that you are, all of what you are – even the parts of your character and personality that may not be pleasant to acknowledge – then you know exactly what you can make happen for yourself, and how. Self-awareness eliminates the great source of discontent in any human being: uncertainty.
And what’s more is that one doesn’t always discover parts of themselves until later in life. While I was always restless as a kid, I had absolutely no idea that the one thing I was born to do was gallivant around the world.
How I discovered that, you may or may not know. I started traveling for music in 2008-2009. It was something that, prior thereto, I was not even remotely aware that I needed to do and the minute I put down the money on the All Star Cruise 2009 (RIP), I felt a rush of adrenaline that, honestly, prior to that moment I didn’t even know possible. When the plane left the tarmac on the flight going to that cruise, it hit me most perfectly and absolutely, that this was going to be the rest of my life: traveling, flying, adventuring, chasing experiences and beautiful sights, meeting and enjoying people of all walks of life. I knew when I set foot onto the Celebrity Century the first time that the jazz world was my home, but that also, unequivocally, my life lay into the thrill of the chase: the flight, the adventure, the exploration, the people whom I met and bonded with along the way, and – naturally – the music.
The camera, of course, gave me the perfect medium to engage that thrill, but I slightly digress.
There is another side to everything, and this is no exception. This thirst for adventure has also encroached on my life, and has impacted the social relationships that I enjoy, and probably will continue to do so forever.
After my divorce, I stopped dating altogether. I did, however, have a friend with benefits – yes, it does happen, and it does work – and he knew very well the sort of a life I had. But as the years with FWB went forward, it was just increasingly clear that I would not be able to open up my life enough or slow down enough to even attempt a normal relationship. He and I had a great six years, but it just wouldn’t have gone anywhere – because the adventuring side of me comes first. I have lost friends thanks to this – not intentionally – because I’d get caught up in life and work, and next thing I know it’s been three, four, five years since I spoke to someone last, and it stops me from contacting them because…really, while “I was busy” is not the best of excuses for lack of contact, it’s the truth.
It wasn’t pleasant to acknowledge. After reuniting with one of my best friends, who works a few blocks away from me – go figure – but whom I’ve not seen long-term since we both resigned the job we worked together, it was a sobering reminder that much as I love my adventuring life, it will eat into everything else. And it was not pleasant.
Sometimes, you’re just not built for certain things – and that is okay. It’s okay to acknowledge that hey, maybe you have several bad habits that don’t necessarily make for a good public image, but they are part and parcel of what you are. Know what? Own that. Own it and enjoy it, because past a certain point in life, asking someone to change who they are is an exercise in futility. You smoke like a chimney? Okay. You can’t stay in one place for more than an hour, have to be on the go all the time? Fabulous. But own it. Don’t disguise it, don’t hide it – if that’s what you are, that’s what you are. There’s no sense in hiding it.
Many life experiences contribute to our journey to self-awareness, and same can be said for my characters. I know who they are as people, but the reader doesn’t, necessarily. I care for my readers, and it’s for that reason that I want to write my character as, for the lack of better words, human. With all the human flaws and foibles that are possible to write. And though my characters are not real people, their journey is no less real than yours, mine, or anyone who reads my books.
The other converse side of the Shakespearean saying is to actually see people for what they are, and exactly what they are, and believe it when they show themselves to you.
Was it Maya Angelou who first said, “When people show you who they are, believe them”? The source is not as important as the saying, trust that. But it ties into the aforementioned Shakespearean concept very neatly. We may acknowledge who and what we are, however difficult it may be, but we may never actually want to face the truth about the people around us.
And that, again, is something we wrestle with just by the virtue of us being human beings. How many times have we given our trust to a person, blindly, thinking that they will never betray that trust, only to have them do precisely that down the line? Too many, I’m sure. Too damn many. Myself, I’ve long had experience in being screwed over by people close to me. The only thing it taught me is that there are very few people out there worth trusting, and harsh as it may sound, it’s probably a good idea to greatly curtail one’s forgiveness.
I know it’s harsh, trust me. But consider it: when you forgive someone, it gives them a green light to do the same thing again. If they want forgiveness, let it be between them and whatever deity they believe in. You’re not obligated to give second chances.
I’ve heard all the lines about how forgiveness is freeing to the soul. Spare them please. There is only one time when forgiveness is freeing: when you forgive yourself for your error in judgment. But forgiving another person? Not usually. It only gives them the opportunity to repeat the same actions.
But think about it. What does it really show when someone double-crosses you in any way? What happens when you’re denied a raise you know you’ve earned? What happens when someone whom you thought you could trust completely betrays you?
Let’s start with the first: it’s not your fault. Again, we’re human. It’s in our nature to trust, and yes, we will be apt to trust the wrong people. But also know that it shows a couple of things about both you and the person who betrays your trust. It shows that you thought well enough of the person to give them your trust in the first place. But it also shows you in no uncertain terms who the other person is.
For instance, when your coworker consistently undermines your work in order to get ahead, even though you like and trust said co-worker, it shows you a couple of things about that person: 1. they’re ambitious and 2. they don’t give a damn about whom they step over. It tells you what they think about you if they undermine your work in order to pump themselves higher. I had a coworker like that at my very first job – supervisor, actually. She made my life miserable, and to this day, I don’t know the reason. I did, however, outlast her. Yes, it was difficult. But the bottom line, it was all a reflection of her, not me. So the reason was hardly relevant.
Likewise, it’s something that I had to play with in my books, initially. I maybe, sort of, scraped at this topic in the first volume of the series, but right now, as I’m digging deep to try and finish up the first installment of the Origins arc, and writing the back story to it all, I’m finding myself going right back to this exact topic, and backtracking to show that yes, the people immediately surrounding my character know exactly what she is like. They just don’t want to see it. Why? Because, just like ordinary humans, they want to believe the best in others, even if it’s not justified.
Whether it’s a question of art imitating life or the other way around, one of the best reviews I ever got for any of my books is that the characters all seem real – as real as science fiction and fantasy can allow, anyway. To me, that’s a compliment second only to the chorus of the tooth-gnashing that comes from my readers when they see I end the book on a cliffhanger yet again. Oh, yeah, I love the “ARGH!” – it’s music to my evil little literary heart. :)