In my bedroom I have a smallish side table that I purchased from a local art gallery. It has been painted in black and white and gold with blocks and stripes and blotches and flowers and swirls in the artist’s exuberant style. And on it he included this quote, “Today you are you, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.” This quote, I learned, comes from Dr. Suess’s book, Happy Birthday to You, published in 1959.
Dr. Seuss, aka Ted Geisel, aka Theo LeSeig, aka Rosetta Stone, was, I’m sure we all know, an accomplished and much-beloved children’s book author. I read a bit about his life recently, and am of the opinion that he was “youer than you” in his own right.
What you may not know about Theodor Seuss Geisel is that besides being an author of children’s books, he also was a political and editorial cartoonist, a commercial artist, a writer and illustrator for various literary and humor magazines, who also worked in advertising for several large corporations. During WW2 he drew posters for the War Production Board and the Treasury Department. He joined the Army and was commander of the animation department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces. While in the Army he created a propaganda film and a series of Army training films. After the war, he released a documentary film, Design for Death (1947), a study of Japanese culture, which won an Academy Award.
In his sixties, he began an affair with the wife of his best friend. The affair resulted in the suicide of his wife of 40 years, and his ultimate marriage to the object of his affection less than a year later. His second wife, 18 years his junior, came into the marriage with two daughters that the couple promptly sent away to school.
This man, who captured the minds of hearts of children with his books, had no children of his own. Indeed, he didn’t really like being around children. When asked about this, he would say, “You have ‘em, I’ll entertain ‘em.”
Dr. Seuss lived a full and rich life. He worked to earn a decent living, and expected no rewards, although he received many. He lived his life on his own terms, even when it meant he didn’t meet others’ expectations. He made no apologies for his choices.
Fancy that. The iconic Dr, Seuss was a flawed human being. But he embraced who he was and lived his life with gusto and purpose. His life was a success in spite of his foibles. He was human—his was simply a human life. What can we learn from his story?
I think that Theodor Geisel shows us that in order to be who we truly are, and are thus able to play to our strengths, we first have to accept who we are not. It may not be easy to let go of who we are not without guilt or apology. For many of us, the compulsion to live up to others’ expectations is too strong. I have a friend who told me in frustration one time, “What other people think of me is none of my business!” It was a startling idea to me, but after some time to think and digest it, I began to understand what my friend means. If I am honest with myself about who I truly am, I needn’t dwell on what others may think of me. Doing so will only get in the way of me being the best “me” possible. I think Theodor Geisel could have said that, too. Because he was focused on being himself as he was, he was able to accomplish a great and worthy body of work. We all benefit from his insistence that he was who he was. Maybe that was why he started out one of his most famous books, Green Eggs and Ham, with the affirmation of Sam-I-Am.
Insisting in your right to be who you are, and only who you are, is not selfish. It is self-preserving. History is full of famous people, like Theodor Geisel, who had to make hard choices in order to be their own version of “Youer than You.” Here are two more examples.
Gautama Buddha spent the first 29 years of his life as a prince with a wife and child and every luxury. He felt the calling to leave that life and live as an ascetic among the poor. He accomplished his life’s purpose in doing so, but he abandoned his family in order to achieve it.
Mahatma Ghandi was born into a comfortable merchant-class family, and was the best educated of his brothers. He left a pregnant wife and widowed mother to study in England. He became an attorney, but was merely lackluster in his ability and enthusiasm for the job. It was only when he became a civil rights activist that he found his life’s passion and calling. This work eventually led him to lead the momentous struggle for Indian independence. He turned his back on much of his early life in order to become the person we know him to have been today.
Putting aside the need to conform to someone else’s ideals allowed Buddha, Ghandi, and Dr. Suess to define themselves according to what made them who they were. They learned who they weren’t and then went about being who they were.
The message for all of us, dear reader, is that learning who we are not—indeed, who we will never be—is the only way to clear the fog that obscures who we are. We must embrace and be grateful for who we truly are—all of it—with all our foibles and flaws. And that, dear reader, is truer than true.