Let me start with a story...
A scorpion asks a frog to carry him over a river. The frog is afraid of being stung, but the scorpion argues that if it did so, both would sink and the scorpion would drown. The frog then agrees, but midway across the river the scorpion does indeed sting the frog, dooming them both. Just before they drown, the Scorpion says, “Aren’t you going to ask why I did that?” And the Frog croaks, “You do you.”
I am sure you recognise the phrase spoken by the frog in his dying moments. It is a phrase that has become a part of the vernacular of this generation and is frequently used to communicate the life-affirming sentiment “Just be yourself”. It’s viewed as a word of encouragement. It’s what we tell children on the first day of kindergarten and it’s how we reassure friends or older children as they prepare for a first date or employment interview. It’s also a phrase we use to assist others when navigating conflict or decision making to encourage them to do what they want to do without worrying about what others may think about their decision.
Whilst there is a lot to gain in encouraging people to be true to themselves there are also a significant challenge. The original telling of the Scorpion and Frog concludes with the frog asking the scorpion why he stung the frog and the scorpion pointing out that this is his nature. Similarly, the problem with being me is that it is not always in my nature to do things or make decisions that are good. Sometimes me being me is a problem for someone else.
A colleague recently shared a classic teacher moment with me. He was challenging a student’s behaviour when another student chimed in with “Sir, he’s just expressing himself”. The teacher replied “Yeah, but what if you’re expressing a jerk”. There are simply some parts of ourselves that are not always helpful to express.
Just prior to the holiday break, Stage 1 Oxygen left a really cute gift on my desk. It was a bundle of short stories titled “If I was Principal for a Day”. Some of the ideas were quite charming. I’m particularly intrigued by the idea of the Principal making “onesies coming out of the sky in winter” but I’m not sure that parents would be pleased if the Principal let “everyone go crazy and dance on the roof” or “the people go on the roads whenever they want”. If a student from Stage 1 Oxygen was to become Principal for a day I think they would need more assistance than a simple “you do you”.
We want our young people to have the confidence to be the people that God created them to be and to live out the purpose for which they were made. However, we also want young people to do this with wisdom, knowing how to harness their individual strengths and passions in a way that productively builds community.
This generation spends up to 1/3 of their waking lives staring at smart phones, and for this reason has become known as “The Selfie Generation”. The message of individualism is reinforced with strong statements such as “you do you” and “just be yourself”. However, despite this focus on self-expression and self-determination this selfie generation is also known for alarming rates of anxiety and depression.
Could it be that to live for yourself, to be entirely focused on self, simply goes against our very formation? God’s word says “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (1 Peter 4:10). Here we see a context for being ourselves, that is, we are to apply our best self to the service of others. This is the heart of Building Purposeful Lives, to encourage students to develop themselves in order that they may be fully equipped to give back to others. When every other message our young people hear reinforces the romantic notion of individualism, our messaging will be reinforcing the idea of community because this is where we believe you find true contentment.
I don’t want to ditch the phrase “you do you” in its entirety but perhaps we should finish it a little differently. Perhaps we could say “you do you within reason” or “you do you with friends” or “you do you with love”. It definitely not as snappy but at least it gives our young people a framework to locate themselves in the context for which they were created, the community.