“I want to be seen here in my simple, natural, ordinary fashion, without straining or artifice; for it is myself that I portray” (Michel de Montaigne).
GENERALLY SPEAKING, IT IS BETTER TO ACT NATURALLY THAN TO ACT UNNATURALLY. But naturalness is a somewhat complicated issue. Before you take someone’s advice to be “yourself,” you need to know that, as the advertisers say, “some restrictions apply.”
For one thing, your natural self may need some improvement. If, for example, dishonesty is one of your personal characteristics, it won’t do for you to lie, cheat, and steal from your neighbor, and then say, “Well, I was just being myself.” No, many things that come naturally to us are things that need to be changed, and naturalness is no excuse for wrong conduct. If we want to “be ourselves” and feel good about it, we need to adjust our habits in the direction of what is right.
But in the second place, there is nothing hypocritical about doing our best in special situations. If your house is like mine, it is not always kept in immaculate condition. There is a sense in which, when people come to see me, I ought to be content for them to see my house in its natural condition. But in another sense, I honor those who are my guests by getting the place in tiptop shape before they arrive. That’s not being hypocritical — it is giving someone a gift which says, “I care enough about you to give you my very best effort.”
With these two cautions in mind, however, consider the benefit of naturalness in our dealings with others. We ought not to be so embarrassed or vulnerable to social pressure that we engage in fake or phony behavior. That kind of behavior is called “affectation,” and John Locke was right when he said, “Affectation is an awkward and forced imitation of what should be genuine and easy, lacking the beauty that accompanies what is natural.” The truth is, unnatural behavior is hardly ever successful. It doesn’t fool anybody. So why don’t we lay aside our artificiality, our pretense, and our pride? Yes, we need to improve ourselves in every way that we can, but if we’re doing our best, then there is no need for us to hide the natural person that we are.
“How majestic is naturalness. I have never met a man whom I really considered a great man who was not always natural and simple. Affectation is inevitably the mark of one not sure of himself” (Charles G. Dawes).