“To thine own self be true,” spoke Polonius to his son in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, as his son was off for adventures new at university.
The fatherly advice delivered as a parting gift was advice from the heart.
It was prescribed to advise his son to follow his moral compass, urging him to listen to his instincts and be guided by his conscience. It was advice well given and a phrase that has become synonymous with the advice we give our own children today.
Whilst the eloquence and poetic license of the Shakespearean tongue is changed, the moral of the advice is not. It may sound nowadays like, be true to yourself, listen to your heart, follow your gut, do what you believe to be right.
The message remains the same.
To follow our own conscience is not always easy; often, we are catapulted into situations where peer pressure, the need to fit in, the fear of the workplace hierarchy, or even the uncomfortableness of standing against our friends and family by pursuing what we know fundamentally to be the right thing feels daunting. But when we do not, when we deny our internal instinct, when we choose to ignore our moral compass, the aftermath of doing so can ricochet back at us and do untold damage.
I have witnessed injustices in lots of aspects of my life, including cruel behavior, manipulation, and unfair treatment of others, as well as disingenuous opportunism and a complete disregard for laws or rules. I have been the target of such, and I have also inadvertently partaken in such due to my failure to call it out.
I am ashamed to say, that too many times I have sat back and accepted unfairness or an unjust and uncomfortable situation because it was easier, because I was afraid to ruffle feathers or offend the status quo.
But where do these small things we overlook lead to? If we continue to do this, and the next person does, and the next are we simply creating a self-fulfilling prophecy, paving the way for our own lives to be chaotic and anxiety-ridden?
As a mother, morality is something I try and bestow upon my children. Of all the values I hope that they receive from my example as they grow into young adults, I hope that the driving force is one of knowing right from wrong—and having the courage to follow their own moral compass, even if it is the unpopular opinion or the socially noncompliant one.
I hope more than anything that this is something they see in me, and I intend to rise up and practice much more than I have ever preached before in order for them to have a clear and direct example of this.
Edward Burke famously quotes, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” And isn’t it so!
But apart from the outward guilt and shame that is felt when we are a bystander to sh*tty behavior, what is happening inwardly? Being authentic and following our conscience is an important cornerstone in the preservation of our mental health.
The internal chaos that ensues when we do not speak up in the face of injustice or when we stay quiet when our internal moral compass is compromised causes us to feel an immediate sense of inadequacy, self-loathing, and general anxiousness, which in turn causes us turmoil, emotional instability, and may lead to depression and anxiety.
We are overriding our deepest instincts and suppressing our conscience to the point that our body is fighting our true selves. It’s us versus us on this battlefield and this level of inner conflict will only lead to deep-rooted scars and inner self-hatred. Whilst it is true that we are our biggest advocate, we are also our harshest judge.
In his second worldwide bestselling book, Beyond Order, Dr. Jordan Peterson discusses the key tell-tale signs that we are ignoring our moral compass and living an untrue life.
He lists them as:
>> Lashing out impulsively.
>> Destroying your motivation or desire to move forward.
>> A feeling that your actions (or inactions) are making you contemptuous of yourself.
>> The way you conduct your life is making it difficult for you to wake happily in the morning.
>> Being plagued by a deep sense of self-betrayal.
Peterson also gives his insight on the importance of fighting back in these situations and realigning our inner moral codes. He suggests we “fortify our position” in times when we are finding our conscience compromised—he suggests this is the is key to living a genuine and truthful life.
I have found myself, especially of late, taking real notice of my moral compass—and the effect it has on me physically and mentally when I do not adhere to it. I am unsure if it’s the pandemic rules, raising two children, or the general state of the world, but it is getting harder and harder for me to hold my tongue when I see a disregard for people’s safety, people’s welfare, or a general injustice being done.
I am finding, as Jordan Peterson suggests, that I am digging deep to fortify my own position in calling this out, standing my ground, and not joining the choir of acceptance, even in the face of having to perform solo in my decisions thereafter.
It is not simply integrity that leads this change, but a deeper connection with my own morality, a firmer trust in my own values, and a resolute belief that everyone can play a part to make the world a better place.
“Morality is not just any old topic in psychology but close to our conception of the meaning of life. Moral goodness is what gives each of us the sense that we are worthy human beings. ~ Steven Pinker