Hamlet asked, “To be or not to be?” That was his question. He was addressing some new information in his life which presented ethical questions – like “Do I shed more blood or do I let it go?” The question has presented itself many times in my life. Generally, I shed the blood. So I ask myself, “Is the outcome worth the blood shed?” And as important, “Did I have a choice, or is blood shedding just a part of my fundamental nature?”
People who worship at the alter of Shakespeare will not find life so easy. In the same epistle, Hamlet, old William also says, “To thine own self be true.” And so we have a conundrum. If my true self is one of blood letting then the other question may be moot. Again, Shakespeare is not easy – he does not prioritize the value system. If life were easy, if life were black and white, William Shakespeare would not have found an audience. No one would quote him, no one would read him, no one would care about his pontification of the human condition.
So here I sit, pondering, to be, to not be, to be true to self – and be graceful in the process. Nope, Old William said nothing of grace – just do it or don’t do it – but remain true to self in the process. I am Aries, born under the rising Mars – Astrologists will say that I am a lion, ferocious, relentless, determined. They might add that while this is my fundamental nature it is not predestined – they would say that an awareness of our nature presents an opportunity for proactive choice rather than reactive blood letting.
Psychologists might define Aries differently, perhaps as one acting out of repressed anger, or acting out of some cognitive distortion. Jung or Freud might say that a man of my disposition has unresolved issues existing as some deviant complex within the unconscious. If I dream of a cave, sometimes a symbol for mother, we might think there is a mother complex that is driving choice – so there is no real choice until the complex is faced and brought out into the light of the conscious self.
If we assume no particular mental illness, no oppressing complexes, no nonsense of astrology, if we look at Shakespeare with an open mind, a willing heart, a desire to do the right thing – then we are back to “to be or not to be – while being true to self.”
What is self? Are we talking about our basic pre-programmed personality? Are we talking about values absorbed through osmosis in the culture of our youth? Some modern intellects speak of a modern identity, one influenced by the age of enlightenment, of science, of reason. This might be palatable but for the mystique of the individual. We can speak of the collective with some general observations – but these observations lose traction with the individual. Humans have some Pavlov learned behaviors, some people are dominated by learned drivel – but again, we are considering life questions from the perspective of accepted normalcy.
Harry Truman, a reasonable man by most accounts, dropped some really big bombs on civilian populations. It is safe to say that he shed some blood. No questions of ‘to be or not to be’ for Harry. Some really smart people agree with Harry’s decision, some do not. There are military perspectives, political perspectives, ethical perspectives, and a few morals on top of the whole heap. When asked about living with his decisions Truman said, “I make decisions and then I make the most of it.” Geez, I wish life were that easy.
If I look at life and say in retrospect that I shed too much blood then I must be saying that I was wrong and I need to change my thinking. But ‘too much blood’ is a relative question. Truman killed tens of thousands and did not think it was too much. There is the problem. There are value judgements on all decisions of consequence. I could walk away from this discussion with the simple justification of action based on values – and accept that others will not necessarily agree.
I am where I am because I believe that values do matter. I also believe that all of us have learned some pretty goofy values. I am where I am because I choose to question long held values, to reconsider moral positions long held. I have been through this process before – questioning long held values is painful. If the value is determined to be faulty then we must revisit past decisions based on that value. These are difficult times for any person. But this is the essence of growth, of maturity, of spirituality.
Life forces the question of ‘to be or not to be?’ Being true to self is not the same as being true to long held values. Being true to self means to challenge those values. Being true to self means being honest with self. Life conflict presents opportunity. Honesty with self takes courage.
The question, ‘to be or not to be’ is a question of values. Sometimes the values conflict, we are forced to prioritize. Life is not easy. I agree with the astrologers on one point – understanding one’s fundamental nature is useful in making conscious choices. This could also be said of Jung or Freud – the focus of their work was simple and honest evaluation of self in order to be – or not.
The only thing I know for sure is that I don’t know for sure.