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How often are you working on being nobody but yourself?

Today is August 15 and the Navigate the Chaos question to consider is “how often are you working on being nobody but yourself?” German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed, “No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life.”

While other Navigate the Chaos posts discuss the necessity of working with others, today’s post reminds us that the hardest work, the building of one’s life path or bridge, can only be done alone. Some people spend their entire life waiting for others to help them build their bridge.

In May of 1996, months after receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, 57-year-old Seamus Heaney took the podium before the graduating class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and delivered what many believe to be one of the most extraordinary speeches. Commenting on the need for the graduates to be nobody but themselves Heaney declared:

“Getting started, keeping going, getting started again — in art and in life, it seems to me this is the essential rhythm not only of achievement but of survival, the ground of convinced action, the basis of self-esteem and the guarantee of credibility in your lives, credibility to yourselves as well as to others…The true and durable path into and through experience involves being true to the actual givens of your lives. True to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge. Because oddly enough, it is that intimate, deeply personal knowledge that links us most vitally and keeps us most reliably connected to one another.”

Poet Laura Riding made the following observation in a letter to an eight-year-old girl about being true to oneself: “A child should be allowed to take as long as she needs for knowing everything about herself, which is the same as learning to be herself. Even twenty-five years if necessary, or even forever. And it wouldn’t matter if doing things got delayed, because nothing is really important but being oneself.”

For parents and teachers an extension of today’s question is then “how often are you allowing your child/student to be nobody but themself?” Do you allow your child/student time to learn about how they are? How are you fostering an exploration of the self for each child?

E.E. Cummings, an artist who never cowered from being his unconventional self because, in the words of his most incisive and competent biographer, he “despised fear, and his life was lived in defiance of all who ruled by it.” In his article entitled “A Poet’s Advice to Students,” published in a small Michigan newspaper, Cummings radiated expansive wisdom on art, life, and the courage of being yourself:

"A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feeling through words. This may sound easy. It isn’t. A lot of people think or believe or know they feel-but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling-not knowing or believing or thinking. Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself. To be nobody-but-yourself-in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else-means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting. As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time-and whenever we do it, we’re not poets. If, at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed. And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world-unless you’re not only willing, but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die. Does this sound dismal? It isn’t. It’s the most wonderful life on earth. Or so I feel.”

In his letter Cummings proclaimed the difficulty of being one’s self “to be nobody but yourself means to fight the hardest battle.” If you want to navigate the chaos, translate your dreams into reality, and travel the path of life you are going to remain steadfast in your dedication to be nobody but yourself.

  • How often have you thought about crossing the river of life on a bridge that only you can build?

  • How do you envision building such a bridge?

  • Do you really want to wait for someone else to help build your bridge so you can cross the river of life?

  • Will you stop fighting to be yourself?

  • Do you realize the world is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else?

  • How often are you working on being nobody but yourself?

  • Do you believe that nothing is more important than being true to yourself?

  • How can you cross the river of life, to use Nietzsche’s phrase, if you are pretending to be someone you are not?

  • How can you connect to others if you are unable, as Heaney noted, to be true to your own solitude?

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