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Religion Column — To thine own self be true

By Fr. Jonathan Filkins

In one of William Shakespeare’s best-known plays, we find the principal character Hamlet bent on avenging his father’s death. The setting is Elsinore Castle in Denmark, replete with a ghostly being, intrigue, mental issues, and all manners of traits of a seriously dysfunctional family. There are poisonings, stabbings, and a suicide to bring the tragic story home. In the end, nothing is resolved. Fortinbras, a Norwegian prince, enters the final scene, finds the entire royal family laid out before him, and makes a move to take over the kingdom. Horatio, a friend of Hamlet’s, requests a military funeral, and we see Hamlet carried off on the shoulders of the soldiers. Needless to say, this is not known as one of the Bard of Avon’s comedies.

Entire theater companies are devoted to Shakespeare’s voluminous creations. Most school children are aware of who he was and what he wrote. The prestigious Julliard School requires their students to complete a comprehensive study.   Certainly, Shakespeare’s elegance, over the centuries, stands out as one of the finest plays ever written. Most all of us have heard the oft-repeated question, “to be, or not to be?” which again comes from the play, “Hamlet.”

One of the play’s ancillary characters is flighty Polonius; who creates intrigues at every turn, delighting himself as the resident know it all and busy-body. He is particularly recognized for his consistent errors in judgement. Yet, in spite of all of the surrounding ills, Shakespeare chose him to deliver some of our most favored expressions.

When parents sit down with their children to provide them some guidance to their young lives, they not only will reflect on their own experiences, but the experiences of others. It is a common position to intone, “If I only knew then, what I know now, just think what I could have done!” Polonius is doing precisely this with his two children, Ophelia and Laertes. In his soliloquy, Polonius tells them, “To thine own self be true.” Now, as his children were mocking him behind his back, these words carried little import. Of course, this type of behavior many parents may find to be similar.

Yet, as all persons have some worth, at least in the intrinsic sense, these words from Polonius are of great value to us; as they reach to the core of our values and beliefs. What Shakespeare is advising us is there are many false paths to follow along our journey of life. Being true to ourselves requires us to discipline ourselves, in every sense. Consider the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount, in the Gospel of Matthew, as good places to start.

Being true to oneself also recognizes the individual design of each of us. We are told that we are called to a whole multiplicity of professions, vocations and skills. Few of us, if any, have met another person exactly like someone we have met before; or even ourselves. Yet, all of us have this call to be “true.”

The Apostle Luke, in his Gospel, related that Jesus asked, “For what is a man advantaged if he gains the whole world and lose himself, or be cast away?” It is as much a directive as a question. If a man, or a woman, being true to themselves follow the directions of our Savior, then they are indeed true to themselves. If, however, they deceive themselves, and others, in their worldly designs, they are, by definition, untrue. To be misleading ourselves about God is anathema and to be lying to God is calamitous.

Accepting Christ Jesus does not necessitate reading the entire Bible to have an understanding of his message to us. In addition, the advisement, “To thine own self be true” does not require reading the entire play, “Hamlet,” for it stands alone in its simplicity. They ask each of us to regularly discern our own selves and how we exist. This means understanding our place in the world and our place with God. If we are unsure if we are true to ourselves, then we are likely not, and should seek guidance: in both prayer and study.