Be Yourself, and Don’t Take Any Shit: Reflections on Authenticity
I did not set out to study at Oxford University. It was in fact my Religious Studies tutor who encouraged me to apply: he initially wanted me to study Theology at Cambridge; but English Literature was my passion, and for some reason I felt more drawn towards Oxford than Cambridge. Needless to say, following my application I was at once shocked and delighted to have been offered an interview for Corpus Christi College, Oxford.
I was a State School student from a working class background. I had all sorts of preconceptions about Oxford, but I decided I wasn’t going to pass on the opportunity, so accepted to attend for interview. It was in October 1999. As I lived in the frozen wastelands of northern England, I was to travel down the day before and stay overnight in student accommodation. At the time I was naturally nervous about going. Not only was I concerned that I wasn’t clever enough to get offered a place, but I had long scruffy hair, tied back with a bright pink hair bobble, and I wore ripped jeans and music tees — not the stereotypical ‘academic’ by any stretch of the imagination.
On asking my Religious Studies tutor for advice prior to my interview, I clearly remember the words he gave to me, words that still resonate with me today, and words that have become a sort of mantra for my life. He said: ‘be yourself, and don’t take any shit.’
When I arrived at Oxford I was shown to my dorm room for the night. On entering the room, I was tired, nervous, and just wanted to unpack my stuff and sleep. But then I found a ‘welcome’ letter placed on the old wooden desk at the back of the room. It was an assignment. I had to write a 3,000 word essay — an interpretation of a Robert Frost poem — for discussion at the interview, which was at nine o’clock the following morning. So much for sleep. Fuck.
The following morning, all the candidates were sat outside the interviewing tutors’ office. Every single candidate was carrying a book. Amidst the nervousness, snippets of conversation came and went. One girl said she was absolutely certain she would secure an offer, because she bragged about being an expert on Jean Paul Sartre. I knew whom Sartre was but I had not read any of his work, and it was my understanding that an expert knowledge on a French philosopher-author was pretty redundant at Oxford, for its English Literature syllabus back then comprised of strictly English authors only. It also dawned on me that, whilst all the other male interviewees were wearing a dapper suit, I was the only one clad in jeans and a wooly jumper, with my lucky pink hair bobble to boot. I started to panic, so I kept rehearsing in my mind: ‘be yourself, and don’t take any shit.’
I was eventually called in to the interview room. As I entered, one professor was sat in a chair, and another on a sofa. I walked up to them, confident, and shook their hand. They looked at each other in surprise, verging on shock. Clearly no other candidate had ventured a handshake — ‘a simple gesture of courtesy’, I thought; ‘I don’t give a fuck how important you are, I’m gonna shake your hand’, I thought. I kept reminding myself: just be yourself, just be yourself. One of the dons, who would one day be my tutor, invited me to take a seat. I walked over to an armchair, and lowered myself into it, not realizing how deep the seat was, or how soft the cushioning was. As I sank into it, it felt like I was being swallowed up, so I made some inane joke about the chair trying to eat me. The interviewers laughed. Thank goodness.
We talked about the essay I had written the night before. I was then quizzed about the Metaphysical poets, mainly John Donne and his poem ‘A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’, which is essentially about the separation of two people who are in love. It goes like this:
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two;
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do.
And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
I was asked what I thought about the image of the compasses. I said something cringeworthy about it being representative of inseparability, for if the foot of the compass remains fixed, then the arm of the compass moves around it, always at an equidistance, a bit like the earth revolving around the sun. For Donne, this was a metaphor for the heart, for love, and for saying goodbye: that no matter what the distance is between the foot and the arm — or in this case the two lovers — the two move in tandem, equilaterally, as if by some natural, universal law. Distance cannot separate them, for they are always connected, and that is why a mournful valediction is forbidden, as per the title of the poem.
The interviewer nodded, probably out of politeness for my cliché interpretation; but then she said something that blew me away. I was literally at the edge of my hungry seat, having crawled out of its voracious maw. She said: the image of the fixed foot marks a central point, and the arm that moves around it creates a circle; so the image of a circle with a point in the center is the alchemical symbol for gold, which in many Metaphysical writings represents the alchemy of love, the elixir of life, the ultimate transmutation of the soul into oneness through love. I knew at that moment the power of poetry to convey a world unknown to our naked eyes, and to evoke emotions deep within us, to better enable our understanding of the nature of love, the soul, and the world.
I was then asked about James Joyce. I had never read Joyce, and I didn’t like Joyce, so rather than fudge the question or try to wing an answer, I openly admitted to my ignorance and instead said something like: ‘what excites me about Oxford is not the books I have already read, but discovering new works, and broadening my knowledge, understanding, and appreciation. It isn’t what I know that drive me, it’s what I don’t know, and I hope to demonstrate my potential to learn.’ Pretty lame, but it was the truth: I was being true to myself, and I wasn’t taking any shit. I wore my ignorance on my sleeve, openly admitting to my lack of knowledge whilst at the same time expressing my confidence in my potential to learn what I needed to. It worked. In December 2019 I was offered a place to study English at Corpus Christi. And I never again saw the girl who bragged about reading Sartre, or the guys in the dapper suits.
What’s the point of this story? The point is simple. The only way to live our lives is by being true to our selves, and not taking any shit. When we talk about authenticity, ‘truth’ and a desire for change are very different things: if we are true to our selves, then we do not need to change a thing; but increasingly, the desire, the need, the insatiable hunger for change is evermore prevalent in our self-help society. Why? Because we aren’t happy in our selves. It’s as simple as that.
We seek out self-help books, courses, and coaches out of a desire to change our selves and our reality because we are not happy with something from the past, or the present, and therefore seek a better future: we are not happy with an aspect of our lives, which all comes back to how we perceive our selves. If we feel a sense of lack in our material world, it is because we are lacking inside. If we feel disempowered in our daily lives, it is because our strength inside is stifled.
All self-help modalities are about changing our beliefs, our perceptions, our behaviours: changing our selves. But what if self-‘help’ was not about change, but about acceptance? Authenticity is acceptance — our truth — not change. It is about who we are, not who we want to be. It is about our present self, not a projected version of a future self. Of course, the value of self-help is to discover, uncover, that self; but the point is, that self was always there, and will always be there, and does not need to change. Transformation is not about changing our selves, and authenticity is not about changing our attitudes and behaviours to reflect a more ideal or desirable version of our selves: transformation is simply embracing our truth, and authenticity is living it.