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,” writes Mario Popova of Brain Pickings. No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” wrote the famous German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. “The true and durable path into and through experience,” Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney counseled the young that life “involves being true … to your own solitude, true to your own secret knowledge.”
According to Popova, every generation believes that it must battle unprecedented pressures of conformity; that it must fight harder than any previous generation to protect that secret knowledge from which our integrity of selfhood springs. Some of this belief stems from the habitual conceit of a culture blinded by its own bias, “ignorant of the past’s contextual analogues.” But much of it in the century and a half since Nietzsche, and especially in the years since Heaney, is an accurate reflection of the conditions we have created and continually reinforce in our present informational ecosystem — a Pavlovian system of constant feedback, in which the easiest and commonest opinions are most readily rewarded, and dissenting voices are most readily punished by the unthinking mob.
Few people in the two centuries since Emerson issued his exhortation to “trust thyself” have “countered this culturally condoned blunting of individuality” more courageously and consistently than EE Cummings (1894–1962) — 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.”
After his fifty-ninth birthday, a small Michigan newspaper published a short and insightful piece by Cummings under the title “A Poet’s Advice to Students,” which he himself described as “a cluster of epigrams, forty-nine essays on various subjects, a poem dispraising dogmata, and several selections from unfinished plays.”
Addressing those who aspire to be poets writes: “A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words. This may sound easy. It isn’t.” This is because poetry is genuine feeling. “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.”
He adds: “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.”
So the hardest battle of a poet is to be oneself: “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.”
“It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are,” claims Cummings. Poets are called to be true. “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.”
And so his 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.” Being true to oneself is the hardest thing to do!
(The writer is professor of science and religion and author of Death: Live it!)