When I was 26 and fresh out of graduate school, I began the process of beginning my career. In the ministry, it’s called searching for a call. My first interview was at a congregation in Long Beach, so I drove from San Jose down to Southern California and stayed the night at the home of grandparents, Charles and Evelyn Broadbent. They lived at Pilgrim Place, a community of retired ministers in Claremont.
On the morning of my interview, I ate breakfast with my grandparents and told them about my search process. I remember my grandpa telling me that it was always important to shine ones shoes. “It’s a simple way to communicate that you take your role seriously.” To this day, I’m not an avid shiner of shoes, but whenever I do, I think about my grandpa and appreciate how this simple action signals to other people, and to myself, that I take this work seriously.
That morning, I put on some tan khakis, a white shirt, and a tie with a blue pattern. I grabbed my new leather bag that my then-fiancée Brooke had bought me, and walked out to the driveway. My grandparents followed me. “Well, good luck,” Charles said to me, shaking my hand, “I’m sure you’ll do well.” As he started to walk back to the house, my grandma Evelyn came up and looked me in the eyes and smiled. Then she hugged me, a nice warm hug. As she pulled away, she took me by the elbows and looked me in the face again. “Be yourself, dear.”
Be yourself. Of course, of course be yourself. It seems like it should go without saying, but we need to hear it over and over again. Why is it so easy to not be ourself? To put on airs. To hide out behind the proverbial façade. To shine our shoes when everything else is falling apart. I think my grandma really saw me that day. She could see that I was nervous, that I was stretching myself to do something I had never done before. And she said the exact words I needed to hear in that moment. “Be yourself, dear.”
There’s no one else to be, really. And yet it’s not always easy to be ourself because we’re not really sure who we are, or which version of ourself we should be in a particular moment. I remember writing in a journal in college on a day I was struggling with depression: “I can only be me. Me is all I have. I may want a different me but this me is the me I have to work with. If I try to be someone other than me, I will be unhappy and exhausted. Might as well be myself.”
Over the past few decades, I have brought my grandma’s words to mind. There’s something about someone else you trust encouraging you, even with as obvious an exhortation as, “Be yourself.” A near-stranger said something similar to me while I was in my preaching program and I hold them as dearly as I do my grandmother’s phrase. I was in a class called “African American Preaching” with Dr. Frank Thomas. Although the class only lasted one week, it remains one of the best classes I have ever taken, a combination of intellectual stimulation, creative experimentation, interactive peer feedback, and a whole week of powerful preaching experiences.
After I had preached as one of my class assignments, the class was giving feedback. In my sermon I had been particularly self-deprecating to the point of false humility. Stacey, an African American minister in the Chicago area, considering what I had just shared, and said, “Benjamin, be who you be. Just be who you be.” Again, we did not know each other well, but she knew well enough that that was the message I needed to hear in that moment.
Be who you be. That’s my message for anyone reading this. We all need you to be who you be, scuffed shoes, scarred life, and all. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone. You need only be yourself. Theologically speaking, your self is a unique gift from God, and it is the primary gift that you can give to others. Of course, we can all work on being more self-aware and to develop and grow our selves over time, but in this moment the most precious and important gift you have to give the world is your one true self. If you don’t know what your true self is, look for it. Pay attention to what you love and value, what gives you energy, even what bothers you. To the extent possible, trust yourself to be yourself, and do so without apology or explanation.