Texas Monthly has a terrific podcast called “One by Willie,” each episode of which features a musician talking with the host, John Spong, about one Willie Nelson song. The second episode’s guest is Lyle Lovett, and at one point in the conversation Lyle discuses Willie’s decision in the early 1970s to leave Nashville — which had turned into a quasi-Taylorized songwriting and hit-making factory — in order to return to his native Texas and start a new life in Austin. And that was when Willie became Willie – or, as Willie himself might put it, that was where and when he was able to really be himself. Lyle goes on to say that in his experience Willie’s most consistent and admirable trait is his acceptance of other people — not just his willingness to let you be you but his encouragement to you simply to be you and not what someone else expects you to be. He wants others to feel the freedom that he himself enjoyed when he traded factory life in Nashville for his own life in Austin.
It’s hard to imagine anything more clichéd than the language of “being yourself.” And yet, thanks to our moment’s everyone’s-a-cop policing of every minuscule deviation from every imaginable orthodoxy, as I listened to Lyle Lovett’s praise of Willie Nelson this hoary old cliché felt to me like a breath of cool clean air. I reflected that clichés become clichés for a reason: because they express something true. Of course, the time comes when that true point has been made so many times that it becomes a truism, and further repetition of it feels pointless and tiresome. And yet, like Fortuna’s wheel in the Middle Ages, the social world continues to turn and eventually that worn old nostrum that had become something to roll your eyes at takes on bright new life.
Be yourself. Don’t worry about what other people think. Don’t be terrified by the perceptions of others, by the judgments of others, the demands of others that you conform oh-so-precisely to their way of understanding the world. Just be yourself. I don’t really believe that life works that way. I don’t believe in individualism. I think that our selves, our persons, are made up of our interactions with others, are dialogical all the way down. Yet there’s something in it, something about the value of a life not lived in fear, not determined by the thirst for others’ approval regardless of who the others are. In this tiresome era of relentless policing, the admonition to be yourself suddenly sounds like something from the Bible’s wisdom books, an ancient proverb or the counsel of sagacious old Qoheleth.