Polonious and Laertes: Hidden costs of self exploration

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As I teach Introductory Psychology to first-year students, I meet with many who are studying different disciplines and such discussions are always interesting. One day, a student studying English came to my office to speak about a recent term test.

Because I am always interested in the reasons students decide to study a particular discipline, I asked her why she was studying English.

I was expecting some of the more common reasons, such as: “English will be the language of world-wide communication and teachers of English will be in great demand,” or, “I am an aspiring writer or poet” or, “I have been inspired by some of the great writers, such as Wordsworth, Austen or Woolf.”

But it was none of the above. Rather, her answer reflected her hunger for self-knowledge. She said: “I want to know who I am.”

She went on to remind me of Polonius’ advice to his son Laertes in Shakespeare’s tragic drama “Hamlet:” “This above all – to thine own self be true … Though can not then be false to any man.”

Of course, self-exploration is of vital importance, but I was tempted to warn her of the hidden costs of such an effort.  Getting to know oneself is certainly advisable, but it can be an unsettling and disturbing experience.

In Leo Tolstoy’s “Resurrection,” the writer suggested that attempts to describe other people, or oneself for that matter are illusory.

People are like a flowing river, Tolstoy said, a forever-changing stream, sometimes broad and quiet then turbulent, muddy, clear, cold or warm – and we all have such characteristics.  What is important, Tolstoy suggested, is that the route to self-knowledge must involve a studied knowledge of many others. That is, accurate assessments of oneself require some critical judgment of others. Generally speaking, such is not the case today, and approval of one’s rather small group of peers is of central importance among the young, who inadvertently reflect the beliefs and values of such age-mates.

And beyond our young, one can see focused ego-involvement on the shelves of bookstores – in the biographies, autobiographies, journals, diaries and collections of letters.

For example, many more of us know details of the turbulent and tragic lives of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath than have ever read their poetry.

Such voyeurism seems more compelling than an appreciation of their art.

Poet W.H. Auden, speaking to students at Oxford University in 1956, told the undergraduates the lecture that impressed him most was on compulsory Anglo-Saxon literature, held in a large lecture hall and delivered by none other than J.R.R. Tolkien who was reading from “Beowulf.”

This particular lecture changed Auden’s life forever. It is interesting that the young, so nostalgic regarding the past, lack a depth of knowledge regarding that past and remain a-historical if not anti-historical

Some years ago, social critic Harold Bloom made newsworthy comments that upset many when he suggested that the masterpieces of literature are crucial to the survival of our civilization – and that no generation can afford to ignore them.

He further argued that people today have little knowledge of such classics.

But our students cannot know what is great in literature without dedicated mentors, guides or teachers.

It is only by engaging students and urging them to engage themselves as well that in the old we can discover the new.

To remain unformed by great writers and thinkers of the past, we are all deprived of exciting discoveries and our lives diminished.

So while the quest for self-discovery is necessary, transcending oneself and engaging the world may lead to a more refined delineation of the self.

In “Sailing to Byzantium,” W.B. Yeats said that our modern age might be “no country for old men.”But Yeats just may have been wrong.

Through continuing contact with what Yeats referred to as “monuments of un-ageing intellect,” people of all ages will not only find themselves, but also flourish. We must remind ourselves of that pulsating world which lays beyond the individual self and those lessons learned by engaging that world are steadfastly relevant to one’s selfhood.


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