“Be yourself everyone else is already taken,” was spray painted on the concrete wall of the overpass. I drove by it every day on my way to the job site. It was about here on the drive that the engine started to get warm. The floor heater of the Chevy Blazer kicked up the smell of effort from a pair of steel-toed boots well past their prime. Those boots were both pride and shackles.
The boots were a source of pride because I finally stuck with something and saw the electrician training all the way though. I did the hours and was qualified. But those boots were also shackles because they meant I did what someone told me to, when they wanted me to, for however much money they wanted to pay me.
I pulled into the parking lot for the monthly safety meeting. In forty five minutes I would be back on my way to the job site to wire up an electrical panel.
That’s what I thought. Forty-five minutes later I was jobless.
After four years of an electrician apprenticeship I was laid off yet again. The work came and went as jobsites popped up and then became finished. Finish at a jobsite and you worked your way out of a job. It was a real disappointment to say the least. After all, I gave up doing what I really liked doing to be responsible and get a stable income.
When I was a personal trainer I had all the time in the world to workout. Matter of fact, I got paid to do it. I ran with clients and sometimes even worked out set for set with them if they asked me to.
Since then, I’d gotten out of shape, developed new aches and pains and was generally pretty disappointed with the way life was going.
Doing ten hour shifts plus travel time didn’t leave much time for anything except comfort food and some TV at the end of the day.
On my way home, I passed the writing on the overpass again. The walls of life felt like they were closing in. I was getting older, my body was rebelling and I hated losing my job every few months.
The fact of the matter was I was trapped. Trapped by uncontrollable income, a body that was rebelling and debt that got bigger each month.
The quote carved on the wall by some modern scribe seemed like a hint to a little more happiness. When I got home I dug through my bookshelf trying to figure out where I’d seen the message before.
Then I realized it wasn’t actually the “Be yourself,” quote I had seen but “Know thyself.” I had read about that one in my philosophy books. According to the Delphi engraving, to know thyself was the beginning of all wisdom.
“Great,” I thought, “Sounds like another rabbit hole.”
Scanning the bookshelf in my basement I saw the rows of old training journals and pulled out the red one. It was an unusual one I had bought in Mexico. Usually I bought the black ones from Walmart. I opened it up. Inside the front cover it said; Goals – 2002.
“2002, almost twenty years ago,” I thought and continued looking at what I had written.
Run 2 Miles in 13:00
One Arm Chin
I stared at the page blankly. It was twenty years later, I still wanted those goals and I was in even worse shape then when I wrote that list. Back then I was regularly lifting heavy and was strong I just wasn’t flexible enough for the bodyweight stuff. Now I was weak, inflexible, injured and 20 years older.
“Who the hell have I become?” I thought. So far from the man I used to be and getting further by the day.
The red workout book was still in my hand. Instead of putting it back on the bookshelf, I slid it onto the table
All I really wanted was to be a little happier. To not be so anxious all the time and to quit waking up in bed, awash with panic when the shadow of death hovered in the early hours of the morning.
He was getting crankier and didn’t know why. I sighed.
“Screw this,” I thought. “Tomorrow this changes and I’m going to go out for a run. Just to get this party started.”
I figured I might as well do something since I didn’t have to go to work in the morning.
And on queue, my alarm went off at 4AM because it was set to go off on weekdays. But weekdays weren’t workdays any more.
I fed the cats, put on my runners and ran two minutes down the alley before my calf muscle knotted up stopping me midstride.
I hobbled home and thought about my glory days in the military and how I had gone from machine to mush.
“Be yourself…” I mumbled.
The last time I felt like myself was when I was in the army grinding away at morning PT and working out in the evenings. That’s when I thought of Sam.
Sam was a long time friend that had stayed in for a second contract with the Canadian Army after we both finished the first tour of duty. We had kept in touch through all the tours and battalion life. We’d had some pretty intense workouts at the base recreation center. Some that ended up with mess hall food being projectile vomited over crystalline Winnipeg snow.
Both of us were civilians now and in the Calgary area but we hadn’t gotten together due to my work schedule and antisocial demeanor.
But all that was about to change because I decided to look up his number again and make a call. Sam said to come on out to his place in the mountains first thing and we’d catch up after all this time.
The drive was shorter than expected. The trees and mountains kept my mind busy and before I had time to get bored, I was rattling down the dirt driveway to a small cabin style abode sitting on a sparkling lake.
I turned off the ignition and my beat up Chevy Blazer rattled to a stop.
On the porch in front of me was Sam, in downward dog on a purple yoga mat.
I got out of the car and watched as Sam jumped up into a perfect handstand and held it in the fresh mountain wind for thirty seconds eventually coming down into a full squat.
Sam looked older. We were both older. For some reason the picture of Sam that I had in my head was the same Sam from years earlier but that big smile was still there.
“Ray!” he shouted before breaking out into roarish laughter.
“Hey Sam,” I said, “I see you’re still full of laughs.”
Sam stood and looked up as if reading the sky. “The truest religion is turning anxiety into laughter,” he said between chuckles, “and besides, the alternative is me being pissed all day.”
Sam leaned over and wrote a checkmark in his workout journal. “What brings you to my neck of the woods finally?
“Well that’s a long story but I got all reflective thinking about old times last night.”
“And how did that work out for you?” he said as his shoulders jerked up and down in silent laughter.
“Yeah well the thinking made me miss the old days. Haven’t quite felt like myself since I got out of the service to be honest.”
“Yes you mentioned something about that on the phone,” Sam said with a smile. “It was the quote you saw on the overpass that kicked you off right? I know the one. Be yourself everyone else is taken.”
“Yes. You look like you’ve got yourself sorted out here,” I said taking in the bold mountain scenery.
“Yup, this is me,” said Sam smiling.
I tried to hide my personal displeasure with a weak smile. “That’s awesome. I’m not exactly where I want to be but I don’t know where I want to go either,” I said joining Sam’s already rolling chuckle.
“Yeah, that’s a tricky one,” said Sam sticking a pen into the workout journal and closing the front cover.
“Listen. I’m just finishing up this handstand workout and was then going to hit a walk. You up for that?”
“I’m here and up for pretty much anything. Could I grab a quick drink first?”
“Of course. Sorry I didn’t offer. Go grab whatever you want from the fridge or tap,” he said. “Then we’ll have a walk and chat.”
Inside I saw a bookcase even bigger than I had in the basement. In the cupboard next to the sink I saw an old 2PPCLI mug from the army regiment we had both served. It was impressive that it hadn’t got broken after all these years. The thing looked like it had been around since the battle of Kapyong.
I took a drink from it, filled myself with water and memories and headed back out.
“Ready to go Ray?” asked Sam in the middle of doing pistol squats and alternating repetitions with each leg.
“You bet. I see you’re still as strong as ever?”
Sam laughed, “Not as strong, but still fitting the volume in whenever I get a chance. I find I need to move through full ranges more frequently now that I’m a little older.”
I was impressed Sam could do pistols but tried not to show it and just nodded my head in agreement.
We started walking and Sam jumped back to right where we left off the previous conversation.
“That quote – Be yourself everyone else is already taken is important for crushing anxiety into a seed of happiness. But it’s double edged. To be yourself doesn’t mean to try and become yourself or to try and discover yourself. “Be Yourself Everyone Else Is Already Taken,” is a call to stop trying to be anything else because you’re already doing it.”
A confused look crossed my face. I was partially listening but also looking at the mountains, lake and trees. There was so much going on all around me.
Sam continued talking. I was in front of Sam as the open grass area closed into a wooded trail.
“Be Yourself Everyone Else Is Already Taken” is often attributed to Milton. Others say it’s from a Thomas Merton quote in a piece called Day of a Stranger. Goes something like –
“In an age where there is much talk about “being yourself” I reserve to myself the right to forget about being myself, since in any case there is very little chance of my being anybody else. Rather it seems to me that when one is too intent on “being himself” he runs the risk of impersonating a shadow.”
“That has quite a bit more depth than the more popular one,” I said feeling the trail start to incline as Sam passed by him to take the lead.
“That’s usually the case if the long version doesn’t fit on twitter,” said Sam. “It probably became shortened down to “Be yourself everyone else is already taken” over time. What’s important is not so much who said it, but the kernel of truth in there.”
Sam turned right sharply and jumped up into the tree leaving me hanging on that last bit of information. Sam had tied a bar between two trees and knocked off two one arm chin-ups per arm before dropping back down to continue walking as if it was nothing.
“Well what’s so important about the kernel?” I asked almost bursting. I wanted to get the conversation going again before Sam offered me a turn on the chin bar as well.
Sam didn’t answer the question right away. Looking to the edges of the path he said, “There’s a herb that grows in the mountains I want to use on the trout for supper.”
We stood for a moment as Sam looked at several different paths that branched out from the area cleared for the chin bar.
“Yup, that’s the trail I need right there,” he said as if selecting a fine wine. We headed up the steep trail and the cool scent of pine wafted over us.
Sam continued the conversation – “Ok, so the quote be yourself everyone else is already taken – is the subject. It is supposed to be a “ground zero” thought on enjoying a life filled with purpose, pride and enjoyment. The end game on this one is instead of finding yourself or becoming your best self, think in terms of peeling an onion of self-deceit or stripping off the clothes of public expectations.”
There was something on the trail that caught Sam’s eye. He paused, bent over and picked up a long pine needle from the thousands that had dropped from a Western White Pine.
He twirled it in his fingers, showing it to me and then spun on his heel, continuing down the damp shady trail.
Once I was by his side again, Sam continued, “We are lucky enough to have an appreciable amount of freedom where we live. In some places, being yourself is not an option. And one of my favorite quotes “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string,” can’t be acted on from fear of personal safety.”
“Trust thyself,” I repeated watching my feet as I walked.
Sam twirled the pine needle, “Yes and even before ”Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string” and ” Be yourself everyone else is already taken”, you had “Know Thyself, To Thine Own Self Be True.” But they are all true and at the same time misleading.”
I stopped walking. “What do you mean by that?” I said looking up to the sky holding my arms out in confusion.
Sam laughed. “Calm down young blood. Quotes are like onions and have layers. Your outlook on life is a direct reflection of how much you like yourself. You can’t like yourself if you’re living a lie. In other words, you’re not going to be happy if you’re busy trying to please others all the time. Which is where “Trust Thyself,” comes from.”
I noticed that when the leaves on the trees fluttered in the wind it was as if they were laughing.
Sam waved me forward, “Let’s go sunshine, we’re almost there.”
“You’ll see,” said Sam.